Daniel is an independent journalist and editor. In 2008 he reported on the armed conflict in eastern Burma and the implications for human rights in the region. He is a member of Amnesty International, the International Federation of Journalists and Britain’s National Union of Journalists. www.danielpye.co.uk


Daniel is an independent journalist and editor.

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The case of Ban Mae Surin: tragic accident or foul play?

Makeshift graves for the victims of the fire.

Daniel Pye

The inferno that burst upon the remote refugee camp of Ban Mae Surin in northwest Thailand on 22 March this year gave the bamboo and dry leaf huts little chance of survival.

Families caught in the blaze huddled around toilets, desperately hoping the water would save them. A pregnant woman suffocated in the toxic black and white plumes of smoke. Fathers used their blistering bodies as human shields in a hopeless attempt to shelter their children from the flames.

In 30 minutes, 200 homes were reduced to white-hot ashes. By the time the flames had had their fill, 37 people were dead, 2,300 refugees were without shelter and more than 100 lay injured, some with life-threatening burns.

We gained access to Ban Mae Surin in March, interviewing more than 20 witnesses and taking documentation of the fire gathered by the refugee committee in the camp to world-renowned experts in international criminal investigations. Our investigation suggests the fire may have been an intentional attack, rather than an accident as the Thai authorities claim.

The refugees say the camp was attacked by unknown assailants using aircraft resembling OV-10C Broncos, US-made light attack aircraft. The government maintains the fire was a cooking accident or forest fire spread by strong winds, despite a local police investigation finding evidence of white phosphorous (which burns fiercely and is used in incendiary munitions).

It is not clear who was responsible for the fire in Ban Mae Surin, home to about 3,300 ethnic Karenni refugees from eastern Burma. But there is no shortage of possibilities, as the camp lies at the heart of the Golden Triangle – the world’s largest heroin- and methamphetamine-producing region after Afghanistan – and a complex web of competing military and paramilitary groups vie for control of these mountainous jungles.

Falling ‘crystals’

The Karenni are one of Burma’s most persecuted ethnic minorities. Burma’s military and paramilitary groups, allied with the former regime, have aggressively targeted them for more than 50 years. More than 20,000 have fled to Thailand, according to Minority Rights Group International. Now, as Burma opens its doors to foreign investors and relations with the US and Europe improve, many refugees fear repatriation to a country where, for them, little will have changed.

From Khun Yuam – the nearest town – it is a treacherous two-hour drive to Ban Mae Surin along a dirt mountain track that fords several rivers, our truck rattling round tight bends inches away from cavernous ravines.

In Ban Mae Surin, witnesses detailed how three planes flew low over the remote camp on the day of the fire, dropping what they described as white ‘powder’ or ‘crystals’ on their homes minutes before the fire broke out.

Witnesses detailed how three planes flew low over the remote camp, dropping what they described as white ‘powder’ or ‘crystals’ on their homes minutes before the fire broke out

Forensic and military experts were not able to confirm beyond all doubt that phosphorus had been used on the camp. But several aspects of the documentation did provide supporting evidence that the fire may have resulted from white phosphorus being dispersed by the aircraft. John Ralston, executive director of the Institute for International Criminal Investigations (IICI), is a former lead investigator of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Darfur. He said the witness reports of ‘crystals’ falling on their homes shortly before the fire started was ‘consistent with some form of dropped incendiary device’.

‘If an incendiary munition was dropped… it would be a crime against humanity,’ Ralston told us by email. ‘If it is white phosphorous, so long as there is oxygen you are not going to put it out.’ The refugees said even small fires they tried to put out were not stymied by water. ‘Once the water drained off it would reignite,’ Ralston commented.

A young Karenni girl walks through the ruins of Ban Mae Surin in March.

Daniel Pye

A director of the IICI with extensive military experience, who also reviewed the files, said if a pyrophoric – a chemical that can ignite without fuse or flame – was dropped on the camp, it would almost certainly have been white phosphorus.

‘It should be borne in mind that if this incident was caused by an air-delivered munition then there is a very strong possibility that the incendiary device used… is very likely to be white phosphorus,’ he said. ‘This is so because it is the cheapest of the pyrophoric… chemicals available and is commonplace among munitions of this nature in use today.’

‘In this case it would have been the perfect accelerant if somebody wanted to set the camp on fire,’ Ralston added.

An intentional blaze?

Nitinart Wittayawuthiku, the Khun Yuam District police chief who carried out the initial investigation into the fire, was removed from his post after the blaze. The authorities said he had failed to carry out a proper investigation, but Nitinart told us that the real reason was because he was questioning the official account.

His forensic team found traces of phosphorus in soil samples collected at Ban Mae Surin in the days immediately after the fire, before an outside force took jurisdiction, he said. Nitinart believes the fire was started intentionally, possibly using phosphorus, to ‘encircle’ the camp. Witness statements described the flight path of three planes that ‘circled’ areas of the camp for several minutes, before flying away at high speed.

‘It was not the wind that carried the flames that caused my house to burn down. There were no forest fires that day around the camp’

A witness, who asked to remain anonymous, said he saw three aircraft fly over the camp minutes before the fires started. ‘One of the planes was flying lower than the others, while the other two were flying around nearby,’ he said. ‘The first one seemed to release something that looked like smoke above our houses. After the first plane had almost disappeared from view, the other two followed it.’

Another refugee, whose house was one of the first to burn, described how he watched as one of the planes that flew over Ban Mae Surin descended low over the camp, dispersing the white substance.

The substance ‘was like vapour at first before it became fire’, he said. ‘It was not the wind that carried the flames that caused my house to burn down. There were no forest fires that day around the camp.’

There have been two fires in Ban Mae Surin since it was built in the early 1990s. However, when fires have broken out in the camp in previous years they have been extinguished or contained easily, residents said. The camp is crisscrossed by rivers, which provide a convenient source of hydropower, as well as water for the groups of refugees who hurry to put out their neighbours’ houses if they set alight.

Jungle warfare

Refugees’ drawings of the aircraft that flew over the camp on the day of the fire closely resemble an OV-10C Bronco, made by Rockwell North American for the Thai Royal Air Force. Thailand bought 38 Broncos from Rockwell between 1973 and 1978. The Bronco, developed by Rockwell in 1965 for counter-insurgency operations in South Vietnam, was used in Thailand’s campaign against communist guerrillas in the 1970s.

A police cordon around the house in Zone 1 of the camp where the fire is said to have originated.

Daniel Pye

Designed for jungle warfare and reconnaissance, the OV-10 was decommissioned by the Thai Royal Air Force in 2011 and several were donated to the Philippines or sold to Pakistan. But it is not clear where the remaining OV-10s ended up. If the drawings are accurate, the other possibility is that the plane was a T.05, a Thai-made plane similar in appearance to the OV-10.

During our visit, a military officer said the border paramilitary force, Thahan Phran, also known as the Rangers, had taken control of the main access road and was blocking independent aid deliveries. For some time all aid had to be delivered to the ‘emergency centre’ in Khun Yuam under the security regime imposed by the Rangers.

The Rangers were quick to the scene of the fire, arriving in a white helicopter on the morning of 23 March. Photographs taken by the Camp Committee – the civil society group that administers camp affairs – the morning after the fire show Rangers from Regiment 36, based in Mae Sariang to the south, inspecting the site where the fire started.

The Rangers was formed in 1978 to fight an anti-communist guerrilla war in northeast Thailand and was a proxy ‘secret army’ of the US during its war against Vietnamese forces in the Plain of Jars in Laos. The Rangers have been linked to the illicit cross-border trade in heroin and methamphetamine and have close ties to drug syndicates in Burma, just a few miles from Ban Mae Surin across the Salween River to the west.

In early 1998, Regiment 36 and the Rangers’ Salween Special Task Force conducted a large operation following an incursion of Burmese army units into Thailand. In the 1998 operation, the Rangers were given air support by OV-10s flown by Squadron 41 out of Chiang Mai airforce base.

Several bulldozers and a digger were flown in to clear the site of debris in early April, despite there being an ongoing police investigation into the cause of the fire. Nitinart confirmed that they were used to destroy any remaining evidence of a crime. ‘Bulldozers are cleaning up the site for reconstruction. So, it is not possible to work on a criminal investigation,’ he said.

International aid agencies have since moved in and erected temporary shelters for the displaced. The tents will provide scant comfort for the refugees, as the second of two tropical storms makes its way toward northern Burma from Vietnam, threatening the region with heavy rains and flooding.

Behind two parched fields at the edge of Ban Mae Surin, mourners buried the dead in modest graves. Two rows of wooden markers display the name of the deceased and a number they were assigned from 1 to 37. Flowers and offerings of water and food adorn each grave. A guitar propped against one marker suggests a young musician was among the victims.

Mahn Saw, Chair of the Karenni Refugee Committee, said the refugees needed a transparent investigation into the allegations of foul play. ‘The police are conducting an investigation. But they have not told us when they will announce their findings,’ he said.

Daniel Pye is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia and Saw C Rogers is the pseudonym of a journalist based in Thailand.

Sumatra: this land is my land

Locals in Mesuji overcome with grief gather to hear testimony from victims of a campaign of terror carried out by plantation companies and the local authorities.

Daniel Pye

On the rain-drenched plains of Mesuji district in southern Sumatra, locals are embroiled in a deadly struggle against plantation companies for the right to farm the land they have lived on for generations. Since 2008, thousands of residents of the numerous hamlets and villages in Mesuji have carried out a campaign of nonviolent resistance to the companies, despite the companies financing a campaign of terror in the villages.

Mesuji massacre

In April 2011, a number of palm oil and rubber firms paid three government agencies – Satpol PP (the civil service police unit), the Forestry Ministry and the local police – and PAM Swakarsa (a private militia that used to protect the interests of the former President Suharto) $770,000 to destroy a number of settlements in the Register 45 area in Mesuji as a warning message to the locals. The ‘Integrated Task Force,’ as it was called, used a loud-hailer to tell residents to leave within three days. When they refused, the militia, backed up by the police, attacked the people, chasing them down and executing them before cutting off their heads with pocket knives and arranging them in the streets as a warning to others.

A family’s makeshift home in Register 45 in Mesuji. Locals are occupying the site where their village once stood in a protest against plantation companies they say paid the security forces to terrorize them.

Daniel Pye

Many of the victims’ families fled, and the villages were bulldozed and burned. But locals have defied the authorities and returned to occupy the site of their former homes, erecting a small protest camp out of tents built with sticks and tarpaulin that do little to hold back the torrential rains and thick, heavy mud.

Some 20 families are now living in tents on the site, and the local branch of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) has helped build a clinic where Occupied Mesuji’s first baby was born on Christmas Day.

The only permanent structure remaining where the village in Register 45 once stood is the burnt-out shell of the mosque. The roughly 180,000 residents of Mesuji are predominantly Muslims, but there are many Hindus and Christians from other parts of Indonesia, brought here under a policy of transmigration intended to provide cheap, abundant labour to feed the world’s demand for consumer products. A local indigenous tribe, the Megou Pak, have farmed the area for generations and have joined the united front against the companies.

Since 2008, the companies have got the police to deny villagers ID cards and have disconnected electricity supplies. Not having an ID card means simple things such as attending schools and getting medical treatment is difficult.

Capital is king in today’s Indonesia, as it was under Suharto. There is no justice and the government is more supportive to business than to the people

A member of PAM Swakarsa’s intelligence division has gone public with his role in the murders and mutilations. While the authorities have denied a video taken during the April raid was shot in Mesuji – they initially said it was in Pattani in Thailand – Trubus said he took the video himself. He had applied for the job, which was advertised as a ‘forestry officer’ position, under the impression that he would be protecting the environment. But the company then told him to spy on his people.

‘All the events shown in the video were in Mesuji,’ Trubus said. ‘I know, because I was holding the camera. There has been conflict over the land for many years, but then the company formed what they called an ‘integrated task force’ to clear the villages. In April, I saw bodies lying in the street and as I walked I found two severed heads on top of a jeep,’ he said. The video clearly depicts a headless corpse hung from a pole and masked gunmen holding up the heads of their victims to the camera.

Going home

‘We will continue to occupy our traditional lands, the lands of the Megou Pak,’ said 42-year-old Surdi, an elder of the Megou Pak from Banjar village. ‘There are few of us here, but if BNIL [one of the plantation firms] does not return the land to us according to our customary rights, we will bring more people to occupy our land.’ ‘We are willing to die to demand our rights,’ he continued. ‘We are Indonesian citizens who have the same right to life as everyone else.’

On 26 December, a delegation from Jakarta – comprising Islamic leaders, human rights activists and military veterans and led by a retired general – visited the protest camp to broadcast testimony from the victims. As the delegation made its way up the kilometre-long mud track towards Register 45, cries of ‘Allah-u-Akbar,’ and ‘the people are powerful’ filled the air as the heavens opened. Residents greeted them with shouts of joy and wails of collective grief and flooded towards a pavilion in the centre of the camp.

The land agency has said that 7.3 million hectares of communally held land will be expropriated by the state and sold off for infrastructure projects – an area larger than Ireland

As the crowd began to swell with people arriving from other areas to join the meeting, the head of the local branch of Majelis Ulama, Indonesia’s top clerical organization, led the people in prayer before they sang the national anthem. Then two women took to the stage to speak publicly for the first time about the horror they had experienced.

Ibu Mimin and Ibu Narsi shook with a mixture of grief and relief as they spoke of how they were living in fear for their lives. ‘We have nowhere to live with our children,’ said Ibu Mimin. ‘I am still in trauma and every day is a struggle.’

Ibu Mimin (left centre) and Ibu Narsi (right centre) speak of how they have lived in fear for their lives since palm oil and rubber companies forced them from their land.

Daniel Pye

‘After the killings, when the company came to destroy my home, I was cooking cassava,’ said Ibu Narsi. ‘When PAM Swakarsa and the police crushed my house I was inside and the boiling water from my pot covered my body and I was badly burned. My husband was killed by the forces of [plantation company] Silva Inhutani when he was out farming in the fields.’

Both women had been silenced by the brutality they had witnessed and only now, in front of a live news broadcast by a local TV station and with the support of retired Major General Saurip Kadi, felt they could tell their story. ‘I did not dare to talk about this before because I was so afraid, so I said what the police wanted me to say. Life has been so horrible and full of terror.’ The pair collapsed with exhaustion and were carried away.

‘What happened in Mesuji goes back to the Suharto era,’ said Kadi. Nothing has changed in the way land is managed. Capital is king in today’s Indonesia, as it was under Suharto. There is no justice and the government is more supportive to business than to the people.’

One woman, who wished to remain anonymous, from Tunggal Jaya hamlet near Register 45, said the conflict has been going on since 1999, when seven villages were destroyed and several people ‘disappeared’, including two of her children.

A policy to reshape Indonesia’s economy, called MP3EI, aims to divide the country into six economic ‘corridors’ and includes a new land law that allows the government to sell off traditional lands to companies.

The land agency has said that 7.3 million hectares of communally held land will be expropriated by the state and sold off for infrastructure projects – an area larger than Ireland. ‘The government’s role,’ a document outlining the plan written by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2009 reads, ‘is to provide incentives for business,’ in the spirit of ‘Indonesia Incorporated’.

A big mafia

An investigations team comprising several human rights organizations and led by Kadi, who headed the delegation, has presented the case to parliament, and a parliamentary fact-finding team led by the Deputy Human Rights Minister, Denny Indrayana, has been dispatched.

The police have, after much pressure and denial, admitted to playing a role in some of the killings. An internal investigation by the local police found that some of its members had killed villagers. Their punishment? Fourteen days’ detention, an office job and a pay freeze. About 130 people were held in the local jail for living on land the companies claim and 30 prisoners remain behind bars.

After the meeting, the delegation met Member of Parliament Nudirman Munir, a supporter of the case, and headed to BNIL’s factory to speak to the manager. At the gates of the factory, the group was met by about 60 police and company security who denied them entry.

All across the underdeveloped regions of provincial Indonesia, people are engaged in a determined struggle against the capital-friendly export-oriented economic policies of the government

The companies say the 1,350 hectares where Register 45 once stood belongs to them under a concession granted to them by the government. But locals claim the land under a form of customary law called adat that has existed on the Indonesian archipelago since before the Dutch Empire arrived.

In many parts of the country, poor, mostly rural communities have begun to occupy symbols of what they see as a corrupt and unfair system.

In Bima, in West Nusa Tenggara province, locals occupied a port in opposition to a gold company they say is polluting the water, damaging the environment and exporting the wealth of the mine without benefiting the local people. In predominantly Christian Bima, on Christmas Eve, members of the Mobile Brigade of the police attacked the protesters and killed two of them. All across the underdeveloped regions of provincial Indonesia, people are engaged in a determined struggle against the capital-friendly export-oriented economic policies of the government.

Displaced Mesuji residents (with retired Major General Saurip Kadi at front row, third from right) speak out against palm oil and rubber companies that have forced them from their lands.

Daniel Pye

The Mesuji delegation has now joined forces with groups from Bima, Kalimantan (where there were recently reports of several beheadings related to land rights-related violence), Riau and Sampang to demand the government rethink its policies.

‘Under our Constitution, the land is sacred and belongs to the people,’ said Wayan from Puncak Jaya hamlet. ‘That doesn’t include already-wealthy foreign firms that come here to exploit and care nothing for the people who rely on the land to survive.’

Locals claim the land under a form of customary law called adat that has existed on the Indonesian archipelago since before the Dutch Empire arrived

Kadi said there were dark forces at work blocking progress in the case. ‘We are not coming together today because we are broken,’ he said. ‘We are doing it because of the incompetence of our government. The case of Mesuji is just one case of a plethora of abuses across Indonesia; in Bima, East Java, Papua. Here, PAM Swakarsa are the vanguard for the companies’ interests and behind them are the police.’

‘There is some bigger power behind this and the hands of the National Police boss are tied. [There is] a big mafia that includes the companies and goes all the way to the president,’ he went on. ‘The mafia pays for lands the government says are useless, but people live there and farm the land collectively. The companies always win in court because the courts don’t recognize customary rights and the companies have land deeds.’

The investigations team announced at the meeting that if significant progress in the case is not made, they will file a class action lawsuit against the companies. ‘This is a long struggle,’ said Kadi. ‘It will not be over quickly.’

Daniel Pye is an independent journalist based in Jakarta who has reported from Burma, Syria and Indonesia.

Crazy medicine

Southeast Asia’s ‘war on drugs’ is about managing profitable criminal enterprises, not closing them down.

There is a growing body of scholarship that documents the interconnections between the global drugs trade, state officials (and unofficials) from many countries and organized criminal gangs. An integral aspect is the ‘shadow economy’ – dealings between what is considered legitimate business and what is not. This is as evident in Thailand as it is in Colombia and Afghanistan.

Recently the Thai government of Abhisit Vejjajiva put out a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrest warrant and a $2m reward for information leading to the capture of the Burmese United Wa State Army commander Wei Hsueh-kang on charges of drugs trafficking. So I thought it would be useful to visit the topic of Southeast Asia’s infamous narcotics trade and explore how drugs, organized crime and organized political violence are shaping the region’s future.

The hunt for Wei Hsueh-kang
The ‘war on drugs’ in Southeast Asia has historically been a battle between complex forces for strategic control – not least the Burmese and Thai governments, the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the CIA. The CIA catalyzed the explosion of opium in the Golden Triangle (a 950,000 square kilometre mountainous region spread over parts of Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam) in the 1950s where it backed first the Kuomintang (KMT) – remnants of General Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese nationalist forces – and then a host of other militias as part of the US’ ‘anti-communist’ covert wars in Indochina.

US support for the KMT’s drug-funded fifth army ignited a race to control this expansive trade, with Burma, Thailand and later Laos competing for a share of the burgeoning business. The Burmese state created institutions like the Union Military Police to deal drugs in competition with the KMT and in 1989 when the junta began to sign ceasefire agreements with ethnic armies they were given special ‘concessions’ to grow poppies.

Since 2005 new junta-backed militias have sprung up under a government-subsidized plan where they are allocated land in what was rebel-held territory. First they lay down an irrigation system, and then set up heavy machine guns and mortar posts on hilltops to protect the crop. If you are found to be selling to anyone other than government-sanctioned militias your fields are destroyed and your life essentially forfeit.

A military report obtained by the Shan Herald Agency for News showed how the junta manipulates the drugs issue as part of its war strategy against the ethnic nationalities opposed to its rule. The report, ‘praised the Kachin Defense Army (KDA), a ceasefire group notorious for its drug activities, as a group co-operating with junta authorities in the fight against drugs, while blaming the Kokang ceasefire group for heavy involvement [in production]. The reason for this became clear later in the year, when the KDA voluntarily agreed to become a pro-government militia, while the recalcitrant Kokang were invaded and occupied.’

The Wa, whose armed factions occupy parts of Shan State in eastern Burma and areas close to the Chinese border, are the target of this latest offensive by the Thai government at the behest of the DEA. Since it signed an alliance with the Burmese junta the United Wa State Army (UWSA) has largely been left alone, a result of which has been a massive spike in narcotics production and trade since the early 1990s. In an effort to bring Burma’s ethnic nationalities under control the junta granted impunity and political legitimacy to traffickers and even seats in the National Constitutional Convention which drafted the new constitution prior to the November 2010 elections.

Wei Hsueh-kang, a commander of the UWSA’s Southern Command (SC), tops the list of wanted DEA drug barons in the region and has been on a Thai death list since 1987. Paradoxically, the UWSA SC has traditionally been financed by Thailand and the KMT. Whereas the Northern Command (NC) comprised mostly ex-Burma Communist Party members allied to China.

The keystone of the UWSA’s opium and methamphetamine economy was the Mong Yawn Valley, close to Chiang Rai in Thailand. From 1998 Thai companies, some with cosy relationships with the military, cashed in on the drugs boom in Mong Yawn by building infrastructure including a road linking the valley with San Ton Du in Thailand. Top Thai military officials quietly approved the contracts. However, recent reports from the area indicate cultivation may have slowed or possibly been eradicated entirely.

Both Hsueh-kang and his elder brother, Wei Hsueh-lung, are protégés of notorious drug lord and former leader of the now defunct Shan United Army (SUA) and Mong Tai Army (MTA), Chang Chi-fu, popularly known as Khun Sa. Chi-fu, a former Kuomintang soldier, who was a CIA ‘asset’ in the jargon of the spy agencies. He did not consider himself a ‘drug lord’ but a revolutionary and a freedom fighter for Shan independence.

The Wei brothers broke away from the SUA and joined the SUA’s archrivals the Wa National Army (which became the UWSA) in 1984. When the Thai-Burma-backed nationalist faction of the Wa joined forces with the traditionally China-friendly ‘Red’ Wa drug production soared, starting with taking over the operations of Khun Sa and moving into Yaba production by 1994. Yaba is an amphetamine product derived from ephedrine extracted from a grass that grows wild in southern China.

The Wei brothers also own legitimate businesses in central Burma – a move echoed by those in many parts of the world doing business in the shadow economy where agents of the legal and illicit economies meet, and swap business cards.

Despite pressure from Thailand, a result of the junta’s staged efforts to curtail poppy cultivation in Shan State to curry favour with the US has been that, because areas controlled by the UWSA and other militia were protected under the ceasefire agreement, only crops farmed by poor villagers have been destroyed. (See the Shan Herald Agency for News’ December 2003 report Show Business: Rangoon’s “War on Drugs” in Shan State.)

Burma Army units working in frontier areas are encouraged to ‘tax’ and collect rations from the local population in a policy called ‘live off the land’. As the Shan Herald News Agency reports: ‘A Burma Army major in Kehsi even frankly told villagers in a meeting: “Of course, you have to grow (opium). If you don’t, you’re crazy. You only need to give us a fair share so both of us can survive.”’

Smugglers are constantly inventing new tactics to transport the toxic goods, often encased in other products such as timber and coal. One smuggler told Shan Drug Watch: ‘In 2008, some smugglers began buying newborn infants from poor families, saying they were childless and wished to adopt them…The infant was then disembowelled and filled up with drugs, administered disinfectants and perfumes to hide the stench, and carried across the border. Like other methods, it was quite popular for a while, but the police later got wise to it, and it had to be abandoned.’

Massacres in Thailand
In January and February 2000 senior Thai military officials visited Chiang Rai province on the northern border with Burma/China. Situated at the heart of the Golden Triangle the region has a long history of narcotics production and rebellion. They concluded that the production and trafficking of narcotics was the foremost threat to Thailand’s national security; the gravest threat since the communist insurgencies of the 1970s and 80s.

In February 2003 then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – a former police officer from Chiang Mai, which lies at the heart of the drugs trade – signed Prime Ministerial Order 29/2546. So began what has become known as Thailand’s ‘war on drugs’. It has been a violent affair. Between February and August 2003 over 51,000 arrests of suspected dealers and users were made and government-linked death squads carried out over 2,800 extra-judicial killings in three months, including several children. Though the death count stopped at this figure, the real toll was certainly far higher, as after receiving criticism from Amnesty International and other human rights groups Thaksin simply told them his government would no longer keep a record of fatalities.

Most of those killed were shot point-blank in the head by ‘unidentified gunmen’, some after having gone to police stations as part of the government’s rehabilitation plans. Others were kidnapped by uniformed police in broad daylight. Some complained that their relatives were assassinated for refusing to pay police bribes. Others hadn’t even taken drugs in over two years and had been on government addiction programmes. ‘Murder is not an unusual fate for wicked people,’ Thaksin told critics.

An official report never made public later found that half of those killed had no connection to drug dealing or trafficking. Interior Minister Wan Mohamad Noor Matha said at the time: ‘They [drug dealers] will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace. Who cares?’

As the BBC’s Jonathan Head wrote at the time: ‘The disturbing similarity among the victims – all shot execution style, their bodies found clutching weapons and bags of narcotics, and the fact that there have been no investigations into the killings – has raised suspicions of a deliberate shoot-to-kill policy by the government.’ According to Amnesty International, authorities were not permitting pathologists to perform autopsies and bullets were reportedly being removed from the corpses. In effect, over 2,800 people were executed because the ‘blacklists’ circulated amongst the authorities were compiled using information from compromised sources, by a police force threatened with sanctions for not meeting target numbers of deaths and arrests.

Shinawatra declared the episode a victory in December 2003, just ten months after it began. Whilst it’s true that the bloodletting decimated the street-level narcotics trade, there was a caveat in his speech. A ‘second war’ was taking place. One he described as a long war against ‘dark forces’ and ‘higher elements’. What has subsequently become clear is that this ‘second war’ could not be won (or perhaps was not meant to be won) because the trade was deeply intertwined with Thaksin’s own government, the military and the police forces.

When the Thai military took power in a coup in 2006 they pledged to bring to justice those responsible for the killings. However an inquiry into the deaths carried out by the military at the order of King Bhumibol was dropped due to ‘lack of evidence’ which reaffirmed for many the existence of high levels of legal impunity in the country. The drugs war was renewed in 2008.

Approximately five per cent of Thailand’s 66 million citizens use Ya Bah pills, a type of methamphetamine. The name translates roughly as ‘crazy medicine’ and it has been replacing heroin as the drug of choice for producers. A pill that costs $0.10 to produce can sell for as much as $3.84 in Bangkok, according to one factory owner. Heroin has not disappeared – it’s flowing, predominantly via China, to international destinations. It’s estimated that around 80 per cent of the heroin on the streets of Sydney originates in eastern Burma. The trade is increasing because arms are being sought ahead of a renewed civil war.

As with the global ‘war on terrorism’ and the ‘war on drugs’ in Latin America carried out via Plan Colombia, the drugs trade, and particularly the position of the Wa in this trade, is intimately linked to powerful forces within the very same governments that prosecute the ‘war’. Despite the US-inspired rhetoric of the drugs war the conflict has in truth been going on for much longer and is rooted in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War and the Cold War. 

The fallout from Operation Paper
In 1950 President Truman authorized the arming and supplying of General Li Mi’s remnant Kuomintang forces in Burma for an invasion of Yunnan in Southwest China to counter Chinese support for the Korean communists. The plan, called Operation paper, was concocted by a small clique inside the Office of Policy Co-ordination (OPC) in the US who favoured aggressive anti-leftist policies over the state department’s containment strategy.

In his new book, American War Machine, former Canadian diplomat Peter Dale Scott details how the CIA bankrolled first the Kuomintang in Burma and then the Thai PARU militia. The Kuomintang had financed their war in China with the proceeds of drugs and one US official commented that they ‘developed over time into an important commercial asset for the CIA’. Dale Scott proposes two major outcomes of Operation Paper: that the CIA would for the next 50 years support forces engaged in vastly expanding the production of opiates, in successive areas not previously major in the international traffic; and that this money would supplement the CIA’s efforts to develop its own Asian proxy armies (which led in 1959 to the initiation of armed conflict in the previously neutral nation of Laos, an unwinnable war that soon spread to Vietnam). The policy made headlines again in 2007, when a CIA-linked plot to overthrow the government of Laos was foiled by the FBI. Historically, a large segment of Thailand’s economy was built on the trade in opiates, encouraged by the British Empire. Its current ‘war on drugs’ sees it caught in a US power-play which is having predictable violent results in many parts of the world.

The OPC and CIA’s creation of a major drug traffic route out of Southeast Asia, helped institutionalize what became a CIA habit of turning to drug-funded covert forces for fighting wars wherever there appeared to be a threat to US access to natural resources – in Indochina from the 1950s to the 1970s, in Afghanistan and Central America in the 1980s, in Colombia in the 1990s, and again in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Many of these groups have since been creating mayhem independently of their former handlers in Virginia – a sign of things to come in the Middle East.

Football and pagodas galore, but no bread at Burma’s circus

In the chaotic weeks following Cyclone Nargis that wrecked the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008, readers of the New Light of Myanmar, one of the more preposterous of the junta’s propaganda organs, would have noticed that despite the terrible havoc, lobster was still arriving on the tables of the well-to-do in Rangoon. (Following this October’s Cyclone Giri, the UN estimates malnutrition in Burma to be over 40 per cent.)

The fishing port in the township of Bogalay, where 95 per cent of the buildings were destroyed, was repaired immediately, to ‘ensure speedy and normal inflow of commodities from other parts of the country’ to Rangoon.

It was not the only sign at the time of the crazy priorities of Burma’s military élite. The release of thousands of documents of confidential US diplomatic correspondence by Wikileaks revealed that Senior General Than Shwe considered buying British football club Manchester United for $1bn (£634m) shortly after Nargis struck.

The move, which was intended to woo the masses like the Roman coliseum of old, was considered on the insistence of Than Shwe’s grandson’s friend Zaw Zaw, a rising star in the oligarchy and head of the Myanmar Football Federation.

Instead, Than Shwe signed-off on a multi-million dollar professional football league, headed by selected ‘business leaders’, while survivors of Nargis lacked shelter, water and medicine.

Though the owners of the new clubs apparently had no choice in the matter, their contracts will undoubtedly come with the usual perks of operating in one of the most corrupt countries on earth: construction and engineering contracts, mining and prospecting rights, logging and import-export contracts.

The Corruption Perceptions Index 2010, published by Germany-based pressure group Transparency International, ranks Burma on a par with Afghanistan in terms of the level of systematic corruption. Only Somalia is given a worse rating out of 178 countries surveyed. Illicit betting on top-flight European football has become a major business in Burma and forms part of a wider network of Asian betting rings.

Who owns Burmese football?

The Myanmar National League (MNL) is an expensive reinvention of the Myanmar Premier League (MPL) that formed in 1996. The MPL teams’ names were rather bizarre; like Finance and Revenue, which won 11 out of the 13 competitions held.

The eight new teams that were established in the run up to the November election were created as ‘joint ventures’ between the regime and prominent companies, both international and Burmese, with the intention of influencing different regions in the vote, a Rangoon-based observer told the Irrawaddy magazine. ‘It will therefore provide things that the public like, such as football and pagodas. In that way, they can grab everyone’s attention,’ he said.

It’s the implementation of an old idea: that it is possible to pacify a restless and disobedient population with games which lift the ‘national spirit’ – although there are no signs that people have been fooled by this obvious ploy.

The ‘sponsors’ are a motley bunch.

Zaw Zaw, head of the Myanmar Football Federation ,owns Max Myanmar Co; a company involved in everything from cement, rubber, a jade mine, bottled drinks and, until FIFA (football’s governing world body) said it broke the rules, one of the eight teams. He was described by US embassy officials as ‘one of Burma’s up-and-coming cronies’. Most of the ingredients in Max Co’s carbonated drinks come from the US and Germany.

The Phakant Jade Mine is possibly the most famous in the world and produces massive wealth for Max Co. Its workers are offered relief from the toil in ‘shooting galleries’ where a hit of the Golden Triangle’s finest is cheaper than a beer. Methamphetamine is becoming increasingly popular.

Eden Group, in charge of Delta United representing the Irawaddy region, is reportedly involved with Russian firms prospecting for uranium near Mandalay and in Arakan and Kachin State, as well as owning a golf resort and hotels in many popular tourist spots.

Htay Myint, one of the wealthiest of Burma’s tycoons and a close ally of the son of the regime’s number two, Gen. Maung Aye, won the contract to run the Tenasserim team. His company, Yuzana, specializes in ‘real estate development’ and has been involved in mass land grabs in Kachin State in the north.

Yuzana has close ties with former Prime Minister and chief spook Lt Gen Khin Nyunt, who introduced the ‘seven step roadmap to guided democracy’ and is now under indefinite ‘house arrest’ for corruption.

Running Rangoon’s team is Htoo Group, owned by Tay Za, whose commercial empire was specifically targeted by new US sanctions in 2008 and described by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control as ‘an arms dealer and financial henchman of Burma’s repressive regime’. In true football tycoon style, he drives a Bentley, Ferrari, Mercedes and a Lexus.

Htoo Group has deforested vast swathes of Karen State in eastern Burma, as well as being one of two companies granted major construction contracts to build Naypyidaw, the junta’s administrative capital, from scratch. The son of Gen ‘Thura’ Shwe Mann is also a chairman of Htoo Group, which bases most of its wealth in Singapore bank accounts. Campaigning NGO Global Witness has said the company’s logging business is responsible for most of the country’s environmental degradation. The company’s fuel export contracts contributed significantly to the popular uprising in 2007 as part of the move to privatize the industry.

Asia World Co, founded by infamous opium drug lord Lo Hsing Han in 1992, runs Magwe FC, based near an airbase which will be used to launch attacks against ethnic nationalities during the coming dry season. The current director of Asia World, Tun Myint Naing, otherwise known as Steven Law, was denied a US visa in 1996 due to allegations of narcotics trafficking. Law’s financial network effectively acts as a state within a state.

The list goes on. Canon, headquartered in Tokyo, is a co-sponsor of the league. In the past the company has backed the English Football League, European competitions, the African Cup and the World Cup.

The whole sordid affair is insured or reinsured, predominantly, it must be added, by European insurance firms.

A troubled history
The official truth that the owners of world football (or soccer) preach is this: football unites the world in peace under the banner of apolitical sporting achievement.

But the truth is that sport in general and particularly football, is intensely political, and has a historical relationship to big business, internal repression and organized crime (see Terry Eagleton and Dave Zirin’s debate for starters).

George Orwell once wrote that ‘at the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare.’ This is often evident in displays of nationalism based on historical conflicts, for example, when England play Germany.

Sometimes it becomes more real.

An oft forgotten conflict – the war between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969, known as the ‘Soccer War’ – was ignited by a football match. When El Salvador lost in the final minute of the second leg, 18-year-old Amelia Bolaños ‘got up and ran to the desk which contained her father’s pistol in a drawer. She then shot herself in the heart,’ wrote renowned Polish journalist, Ryszard Kapuscinski in The Soccer War. She had fired the first shot in a very real war which claimed thousands of lives over four years.

The world barely batted an eyelid, consumed by the war in Vietnam. After all, as Kapuscinski pointed out, these were two small, poor, coffee-exporting nations that had never before qualified for a World Cup nor done much else to make the world notice them.

A little over a decade after Chile co-hosted the tournament in 1962 – under the Western-backed Pinochet dictatorship – thousands were interned, tortured and executed in Santiago’s Estadio Nacional. In 1974 the Soviet Union refused to play Chile in a qualifier and so Pinochet’s team automatically qualified. There were 80 concentration camps in Chile at the time; one of which, Estadio Chile, is where folk singer Victor Jara was murdered amongst countless others.

Uday Hussein, son of former Iraqi dictator Saddam, was known for torturing Iraqi footballers who displeased him. Since the US-led invasion, many of the same people involved were put back in charge of the Iraq Football Association.

Resistance on the terraces
Perhaps the regime wishes to revive the golden era of Burmese sporting achievement. There was a time – between 1965 and 1973 – when Burma dominated Asian football, winning the biennial Southeast Asian Games five times, and the Asian Games twice. This has certainly been a goal since the early 1990s when privatization and sports began to be encouraged as a way to wriggle free of political and economic isolation;  over six hundred clubs were established and nearly 20,000 players played the game.

But what hope is there for a football league, so mired in corruption and humanitarian abuses, and so closely allied with such a malign regime?

The football stadiums are becoming another frontier in a struggle for expressing the population’s dissent against the ruling interests. Fights between riot police and supporters are a regular occurance. A Rangoon businessman told the Irrawaddy in 2009: ‘Every time Tay Za’s team competes, the fans mock and swear at their players. They shout things like, “Tay Za’s team is bad, his airline sucks.”’ At a match in Rangoon fans chanted ‘Don’t fly with Air Bagan!’ who sponsor the club.

The article continues:

They mock the generals, as well as officials and businessmen who are associated with them. They do this even when Nay Shwe Thway Aung, the grandson of the junta’s paramount leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, attends matches, according to residents. The supremo’s grandson comes protected by about 100 security guards. 

Some in the crowd express political opinions and spread information. Others moan about the economic and social problems they face, according to Rangoon residents who go to the matches.

After the elections

Burma’s first general election in 20 years is over and as expected the paramilitary associates of the military junta, which is unlikely to retreat into the wings, have claimed an overwhelming victory.

Now a renewed civil war is developing in border areas, with the military positioning itself for a massive summer offensive, backed up by 50 newly acquired Russian helicopter gunships.

The fraudulent election may have created unity of purpose among the resistance armies of Burma’s long-suffering ethnic nationalities not seen since the aftermath of the 1988 uprising.

Recently the battle for the border town of Myawaddy, between members of the armed Karen resistance and the military, made headlines and sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing into Thailand. International attention focused fleetingly on the Karen struggle, the world’s longest running armed resistance movement.

Myawaddy is a symptom of a wider crisis – one that has paralysed communities and quietly suffocated a nation.

After 15 years of infighting, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBU) – a Karen splinter group armed by the junta – has allied itself with the Karen National Union (KNU), in a move that could tip the balance of the war. It was the DKBA that captured Myawaddy earlier this month.

Two of the country’s largest resistance groups – the United Wa State Army and the Kachin Independence Organization – have been preparing to fight the central government for several months, knowing full well the intentions of the regime, and have now entered into an alliance with the KNU, the New Mon State Party, the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and the Chin National Front.

The agreement means that if one group is attacked the others will begin to fight in their areas and amounts to a declaration of independence. The aim is a parallel government structure similar to the federated union of autonomous states that has been the longstanding demand of the ethnic nationalities.

To an extent the junta has cornered itself, and must now either back down over its new border guard force or engage in counter-guerrilla warfare, which it may not be prepared for in the long run.

‘We intend to set up different military front lines in the country when the Burmese military attack one of our members. That way they can’t reinforce their troops at only one position. They have to defend every corner from our attacks. This is how we will be better prepared to counter their offensives,’ Bee Htoo, army chief of the KNPP, told The Irrawaddy magazine.

The purchase of 50 Soviet-era MI-24 helicopter gunships from Russia and the sheer weight of Burma Army troop numbers (around 500,000 trained soldiers) mean ethnic groups will have to rely heavily on guerrilla tactics, while the army will continue to target the civilian population for forced relocation. The MI-24s are heavily armoured and are particularly suited to ‘counter-insurgency’ work.

Sporadic fighting between government forces and ethnic groups has already begun, but is limited to local pitched fire fights. Though the new gunships are yet to be deployed, reports suggest they have been stationed in central and northern Burma, ready for open conflict with former ceasefire groups the United Wa State Army and Kachin Independence Organization.

The air force has been used since its creation in 1947-48 as a tool to suppress dissidents. Its planes were first sent against suspected members of the Burma Communist Party in the late 1940s and have been used to support ground campaigns against ethnic minorities for several decades.

The lay of the land
Burma’s topography has been a huge factor in its development. A vast lowland plain – the Irrawaddy basin – is surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped mountain range of dense jungle, as yet unconquered by the encroaching city.

This led to a centralized bureaucracy developing in the centres of power like Mandalay, Pegu and Rangoon, and many small hill states evolving to survive the ebb and flow of great power.

This tense relationship between lowland and highland Burma has characterized its recent history and since Ne Win’s 1962 coup, the military have undertaken many campaigns to subdue the highlanders, whom they regard as inferior and uncivilized.

The mountains of the north and east – the Shan and Kachin Hills, part of the greater Southeast Asian massif – have historically been home to princes, petty warlords and kings who’ve fought against rule from Mandalay and Rangoon.

Since April 2009, the junta has pressurized, coerced and bribed militia leaders from armed resistance groups into joining its new border guard force.

The junta’s strategy of depriving resistance armies of funds, food, recruits and information (read forced relocations, lynching civilians) has weakened following the election. So Myawaddy was a symptom of the unity that the election fraud has created amongst ethnic armies.

Thai traders living on the border quietly sell canned fish, rice and noodles to the resistance groups, happy for the money they receive and hopeful that deals will continue to be made.

Dirty business: will British trade with Sudan be a blueprint for Burma?

By inviting representatives of indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir to London for an event designed to carve up Sudan’s natural resources among British firms, the coalition government effectively made a public statement that its ‘new politics’ doesn’t stretch to include foreign policy.

This was good news for those in attendance at the Opportunities in Sudan event organized by UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), a government body set up to promote ‘free trade’ with Britain. Delegates representing oil firms, private armies, engineering and agribusiness interests must have felt relieved to be told ‘there’s a lot of money to be made’.

It is no coincidence that a recent UK Trade and Investment report on Sudan fails to even mention Darfur or the indictment of the Sudanese President. Mike Gavin of UKTI was recently recorded advising a filmmaker – posing as an entrepreneur offering ‘security in Nigeria’ – that British embassies are effectively acting as a vanguard for the ‘business community’.

This ‘new epoch’ in Britain-Sudan relations could also serve as a blueprint for future rapprochement with the Burmese generals. Britain remains one of Burma’s largest investors, despite sporadic denunciations of the regime from politicians. Through a vast web of private holding companies based in overseas dependencies like the Virgin Islands, Britain offers legal protection to a shadowy network of international ‘consortiums’ wishing to benefit from the country’s vast natural wealth and harsh labour laws.

Burma’s Foreign Investment Law offers incentives by protecting investors from almost all taxes and includes a provision to allow firms to lower the value of property on paper for tax purposes. ‘Why invest in Myanmar?’ the military government’s website asks in a report. ‘To sum up, this law provides every protection to foreign investors.’ Almost as an aside they add: ‘The labour force is yet another plus.’

Successive British governments have professed solidarity with Burma’s ‘democracy movement’ but have shirked pledges to ban investment in favour of badly applied, cumbersome sanctions. In response to this, Westminster would argue that they have invested millions in cross-border aid and ‘democracy promotion’ initiatives since 2004. While this is sometimes beneficial, the investment is insignificant compared with the over £1.2 billion ($1.9 billion) of recorded British trade since the 1988 uprising. If one included undocumented investment, this figure could easily double.

With the recently ‘staged’ election consolidating their grip, the military commanders are now positioned to profit from a 'democratic' Burma where basic freedoms are limited, and the consequences of expressing even mild dissent can be terrifying. These freedoms will no doubt be tested again with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.

It’s shocking though, sadly, not surprising that the acquiescence of British capital in Burma’s tragedy is afforded such little coverage in the media. Especially given its position as one of the few remaining military-administered states, with some of longest running resistance movements in the world.

Another parallel with Sudan springs to mind. A letter from Tony Baldry MP of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sudan notes that William Hague, British Foreign Secretary who was a key figure at the Sudan networking event, recently said: ‘We should never turn a blind eye to countries which display trappings of democracy while violating basic human rights, or that lay claim to rule of law while lacking the independent courts and proper systems of accountability and transparency to prevent abuses of state power.’

It seems, though, that is exactly what is going to happen, as it did under the Labour government.

Their guns will not conquer

These are the darkest days we have ever faced,’ says Colonel Nerdah Mya of the Karen National Liberation Army – the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) – as we sit at base camp. Here in the mountain jungles of Karen State in eastern Burma, he talks about the world’s longest running civil war and the international community's apparent blindness to it.

Since 1949 the Karen have been fighting a war of self-determination, first against the Burmese Government and then against the military dictatorship now ruling Burma – the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The SPDC maintain an overwhelming presence in Karen State – there are 20 well-equipped Government soldiers for each Karen guerrilla. On 29 June they launched a major offensive against the key strategic outpost of Wah Lay Kee. The pitched battle lasted for several weeks. At Mae Sot General Hospital in Thailand wards filled up with wounded from all sides.

But it is off the official battlefields that the carnage has been most terrifying. When Government soldiers go on ‘search and destroy’ missions, males from Karen villages are kidnapped and used as porters, forced to carry the soldiers’ packs and walk in front as human shields and minesweepers. Villagers are routinely and often arbitrarily subjected to torture, execution, imprisonment and forced labour. Women are frequently gang-raped and infected with HIV.

Cyclone Nargis left over 140,000 dead and ‘missing’ in the Irrawaddy delta region to the west. Colonel Nerdah questions whether it was just a coincidence that aid did not arrive. Could it instead have been part of the military regime’s programme to eliminate the Karen and quell dissent?

With over 120 ethno-linguistic groups, Burma has an extraordinarily diverse culture and a history of division. After Burma became an independent nation in 1948, the Karen – one of the largest ethnic groups in the country (with 6.2 per cent of the population) – were just one of the minorities seeking to live autonomously. Sixty years later, Colonel Nerdah believes that his people must create a viable and sustainable economy if they are to win recognition as a state and exist as such.

This means another fight: to work every day to build a new nation. The Karen’s corn will be sold in Thailand and the profits used to fund construction and provide direct aid to the villages. And as part of a programme to encourage those who have come back to their homeland, the KNU is building attractive ‘model villages’ for currently displaced Karen.

But the economic war is being fought from both sides. The military regime is constructing three major hydropower projects on the Salween River, a UNESCO world heritage site, to provide power and income for the regime. Reservoirs created by the dams will flood large rebel-held areas. The completion of the dams would be a devastating blow to the Karen in an already devastating war.

Daniel Pye

The brutality inflicted on the Karen is also faced by other minorities, such as the people of Shan State, also in the east of Burma. Hear Charm Tong from the Shan Women’s Action Network describe this brutality and talk about what her people are doing to stop it in ‘Ballot Boxes Burma’ in Radio New Internationalist’s archives: www.newint.org/radio

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