New Internationalist

Heroin’s Hidden Deals

Issue 280

Heroin's hidden deals
Burma produces more than half the world’s raw heroin.
But who controls the lucrative drug trade now?
Faith Doherty reports.

The announcement made at the beginning of January 1996 that Burma’s opium warlord Khun Sa had surrendered to the country’s ruling junta caught virtually all parties by surprise. Since his surrender it has become clear – as suggested by many Burma-watchers over the years – that Khun Sa’s departure will not greatly alter the situation. The fact that Burma supplies more than half of the world’s heroin has never depended on one man or one organization.

In the United States 60 per cent of heroin sold on the streets originates from the Golden Triangle and the region has been a major focus of anti-narcotic agencies and governments for decades – with little apparent effect. The previous General Ne Win-led governments and the present SLORC junta have all approached the drug problem in Burma by playing a two-faced game: on one side requesting support from the West to eradicate drugs and do battle with Khun Sa, and on the other, doing lucrative deals with drug kingpins. And opium is Burma’s most lucrative cash crop.

Now that the junta has secured military ceasefires with all ethnic rebel groups dependent on the opium economy for their survival, the surrender of Khun Sa should ensure that the spotlight again goes back on to Rangoon. But will it? Since Khun Sa’s surrender, the junta has stated that it will militarily control the territory previously held by Khun Sa and his Mong Tai Army. The junta has further promised that there will be a 70-per-cent reduction in the flow of heroin from Burma now that the prime growing areas have ‘joined the legal fold’. Time will tell. But given that the military have repeatedly reiterated their hatred for the ‘notorious drug-lord Khun Sa’, and that their past statements have ruled out both dialogue and any agreement with him or with the Mong Tai Army, such statements must be taken with more than a pinch of salt.

Khun Sa’s Shan people are not alone in their struggle with warlords, the junta and dependence on the opium economy. Other ethnic nationalities, such as the Wa and Kokang, have long been involved in the cultivation of opium to fund their fight for independence from Rangoon. In the late 1980s both the Wa and Kokang concluded ceasefire agreements with Rangoon. Yet their cultivation and sale of opium continues essentially unchanged. The junta used military force to drive both ethnic groups to sign these ceasefire agreements – no significant political settlements have been made.

For years the US used Khun Sa as their big bogey of the Golden Triangle: Khun Sa was Public Enemy Number One. Other drug-lords in the area, meanwhile, have become more influential but have kept much lower profiles. Despite considerable evidence that other groups and individuals were involved in the multi-billion dollar industry, there were many who believed Khun Sa’s capture would severely damage the flow of heroin. The logical next step for anti-narcotics officials was to work closely with the junta as the only way to have an impact on the export of heroin. This position failed to understand that the Shan people themselves saw their struggle not as a drug war but as a national struggle for self-determination. There is now an uncomfortable silence from those who pushed to empower the junta. Anti-narcotic officials are now forced to admit that Khun Sa’s surrender is likely to have little or no impact on the flow of heroin.

In 1989 and 1992 indictments were handed down in New York courts against Khun Sa. But after his surrender, the junta announced that it would not hand him over to US authorities for extradition and trial. The US responded by offering two million dollars for any information leading to his arrest. According to sources in Rangoon, the last thing the authorities would do is hand over the drug-baron. The reason is simple: he knows far too much and would be in a position to expose too many influential people, including junta members, involved in the trade.

Recent reports published through wire agencies in Bangkok revealed that Khun Sa has been paying a Burmese regional commander a monthly fee of around $5,000 a month (the average monthly wage for a Burmese citizen is under $25 a month). A ‘large sum’ of money was also paid to a Burmese army general, apparently in order to secure his surrender and peaceful retirement. Reports of this kind have not surfaced so openly in the past few years, but it is widely known that there are members of the authorities in Rangoon on the payroll of drug traders, including prominent past kingpins, such as Lo Hseing Han.

At the time of writing, it’s harvest time for opium in Burma. Khun Sa is not there to send his men to pick, nor are the mule trains lined up to carry the crop through his territory to his refineries. What will happen to the thousands of tonnes of opium currently being picked by ethnic people, people who now depend entirely on the business that Khun Sa and others have created? With other drug dealers only too ready to step in, it is unlikely this vast harvest will go to waste. As for the junta, this is the time for them to show their sincerity about drug control.

Corrupt generals are an old story in Burma, but SLORC control of the Shan opium-growing regions is new. It is now up to the junta to turn off the heroin spigot, if this is their true intention. The world is waiting. If heroin continues to flow unabated onto the streets of New York, Los Angeles and Rangoon, there will be only one culprit now. We can only hope that Khun Sa’s departure wakes up all those concerned with the Golden Triangle heroin problem to its only real solution: an end to the political crisis in Burma.

Faith Doherty is a Burma-watcher working with the Southeast Asian Information Network (SAIN) in Bangkok.

Villagers' story
Maung (not his real name) is a 36-year-old peasant farmer:

‘It was understandable that the Japanese [during World War Two] forced us to do slave labour because they were foreigners. But now it’s our own people who are treating us like slaves. We didn’t agree to do it at all, but we had no right to refuse. We can’t voice how we feel!

People died working on the railway while I was doing my forced labour there. Some died in landslides, some from fever. About five people died in one landslide while a hill was being bulldozed. Some of the bodies were found, some were not. Oh dear, oh dear, in some cases only part of the bodies were found! In some cases only a head was found, in some cases only a foot...

When the bodies were found they weren’t mourned properly with a funeral. If the friends or relatives wanted to take the body away and arrange a funeral, they could. Otherwise a hole was dug and the body was just left there.

Now there are three trains running along that stretch we worked on, from Yebyu to Ngweley.’

Min, in her early thirties, takes up the story:

‘If there are no adults in a household available to go for forced labour and there is no money to pay a fine instead, then a child has to go. They have been building this railway for three years now so we have had to ask the children to go because it’s so hard to get money these days. The children are often too young to anticipate danger and so they are the most vulnerable people working on the line. If there is danger they are the ones likely to die.

They told us that once this railway was completed the price of rice would go down from 75 kyats to 3 kyats per basket. But it’s not true. In reality a basket of rice is now 80 kyats.

No, we have not heard that the railways would be used for tourism. But then, since we live in a small village in a remote place, it’s very hard for us to get to hear the news. Only when we go close to the railroad do we get to hear some news. We used to hear that they were building the railways for a French oil company. But we don’t hear about that any more. Now we are just told that the prices of commodities will go down because of the railway.

You ask me if I am angry? Oh, I’m very, very angry! Oh, we want this ruler to die! Why doesn’t this cruel ruler die? Everybody wants it, not only me. Everybody is saying that.’

The couple were interviewed by John Pilger

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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