PEOPLE OF THE OPIATE Burma's narco-dictatorship has hooked that nation on the drug trade, and it's pumping heroin to the United States


BURMA -- or Myanmar, more formally -- makes the Western news pages mostly for its repression of the struggling democracy movement led by Nobel peace laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is continually harassed and was recently physically attacked while trying to address her followers. But those who dare to take a serious approach to drug eradication are likely to end up in deadlier trouble with the ruling dictatorship, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, which has incorporated the booming heroin trade into the permanent economy of the country.

Consider the case of U Saw Lu, a revered leader in the mountainous poppy-growing region of the Wa territory, one of the many ethnic regions in Burma. Lu, a Wa prince and chairman of the United Wa State Anti-Narcotics and Development Organization, has waged a risky opium eradication campaign on behalf of his people since the SLORC seized power in a 1988 coup.

In January 1992, after U Saw Lu informed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration about the drug trafficking activities of a regional SLORC chief and a local drug warlord, he found himself face to face with a torture squad. According to DEA "Sensitive" e-mail, "he was held upside down for 56 days with 220 current attached to one of his favorite appendages." A doctor who remained present through the torture session revived Lu when he passed out. Urine was poured on his face and he was beaten with chains as he lay near death next to a freshly dug grave. His life was spared after Wa leaders threatened military action during a meeting with SLORC's head of military intelligence, Gen. Khin Nyunt.

"There were terrible scars all over his body after the torture," said Benjamin Min, a former SLORC official from Rangoon, who quit )) the dictatorship and jointed Lu in his war against drugs. "He had internal injuries and he needed medical attention."

Maj. Than Aye, the intelligence officer Lu had told the DEA about, supervised the torture sessions. The drug shipment Aye had been overseeing was on its way to one of the world's most notorious drug kingpins, Lo Hsing Han, destined to become a key business partner of Burma's emerging narco-dictatorship. Major Aye has since been promoted to a high-level government position by the ruling council.

According to Benjamin Min, Lu continued to work on opium eradication although he was warned during his torture to terminate any relationship with the DEA In 1993, Lu gave DEA special agent Richard Horn a document titled "The Bondage of Opium: The Agony of the Wa People, a Proposal and Plea."

In his plea, Lu outlined specific steps that were needed to promote opium eradication among the Wa farmers, who provide 80 percent of Burma's opium crop. The Wa, an ethnic minority of 1 million, live in a remote area of Burma's Shan State where there are no roads, no educational system, no medical clinics and electricity for less than 10 percent of families. Even though the Wa farmers grow one of the globe's most sought-after crops, they remain among the world's poorest peoples. Lu knew that any hope of change had to include a serious plan for crop substitution. "Like the heroin addicts that result from the opium, we too are in bondage. We are searching for help to break that bondage," he wrote in his proposal to the DEA.

Communications between the DEA's Rangoon office and higher officials in Washington reveal that agent Horn had every intention of working with the Wa people to implement Lu's

proposal. But for reasons that remain unclear, the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department had other ideas. DEA sensitive e-mails state that former CIA chief of station Arthur Brown "destroyed his project in one swift move." According to the e-mails, Brown delivered in an early version of the Wa proposal - signed by Lu - to SLORC military intelligence officer Col. Kyaw Thein. When Thein threated to pick up Lu once more and teach him a lesson in respect, Horn was able to intervene temporarily. In Horn's view, the CIA destroyed a unique opportunity for a dramatic drug eradication program in the poppy fields of the world's biggest heroin producer. (Horn, now a DEA group supervisor in New Orleans, is suing the CIA, claiming it illegally surveiled his residence in Rangoon to gain information about his plans, which the CIA went on to foil.)

In September 1993, Horn was forced out of the country by the State Department under pressure from the CIA. The plans of the Wa prince and his chief deputy, Benjamin Min, were crushed. A year later, Min risked his life to take the Wa Proposal and Plea to policy-makers in Washington. Before he left, the SLORC hatched a series of unsuccessful assassination plots. In his sworn testimony to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which won him asylum in the United States, Min states, "Their aim was to assassinate the Wa leaders, specifically U Saw Lu and myself as his chief deputy."

Burma has more than doubled its illicit drug exports since the SLORC takeover in 1988. The U.S. Embassy in Rangoon reports that the area used for poppy cultivation in Burma increased by two-thirds between 1987 and 1990. At a United Nations Drug Control Program (UNDCP) regional conference in November *T 1993, French and U.S. satellite surveys showed an explosion of poppy growing in areas directly under SLORC control.

The UNDCP also reported at the U.N.-sponsored Heads of Narcotics Law Enforcement Agencies international meeting this November that the Asian heroin trade reaps $63 billion in profits annually. Burma is by far the largest exporter in the region, providing more than 50 percent of the world's supply.

This booming heroin trade has sent a flood of narco-dollars into Rangoon. "All normal economic activities, if you can call anything in Burma normal, are instruments of drug money laundering," says Francois Casanier, research analyst with Geopolitical Drugwatch in Paris. "And no drug operation in Burma can be run without SLORC."

The integration of narco-dollars into the national economy is further highlighted by a new economic report from the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon. Released in July, the "Country Commercial Guide" states that at least 50 percent of Burma's economy is unaccounted for and extralegal. "Exports of opiates alone appear to be worth about as much as all legal exports," the report says.

A four-year investigation conducted by intelligence analyst Casanier and a team of researchers found that Burma's national company Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) was "the main channel for laundering the revenues of heroin produced and exported under the control of the Burmese army." In a business deal signed with the French oil giant Total in 1992, and later joined by Unocal, MOGE received a payment of $15 million. "Despite the fact that MOGE has no assets besides the limited installments of its foreign partners and makes no profit, and that the Burmese state never had the capacity to allocate any currency credit to MOGE, the Singapore bank accounts of this company have seen the transfer of hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars," reports Casanier. According to a confidential MOGE file reviewed by the investigators, funds exceeding $60 million and originating from Burma's most renowned drug lord, Khun Sa, were channeled through the company. "Drug money is irrigating every economic activity in Burma," Casanier says, "and big foreign partners are also seen by the SLORC as big shields for money laundering."

The SLORC's close relationship with Burma's most powerful drug traffickers was revealed to the world at this past spring's wedding celebration of entrepreneneur Steven Law, son of legendary drug lord Lo Hsing Han, who as of 1994 controlled the most heavily armed drug-trafficking organization in Southeast Asia. It is doubtful that anyone attending this lavish affair was thinking about the torture suffered by U Saw Lu for trying to impede Han's drug trade back in 1992. The family's guest of honor was Hotels and Tourism Minister Lt. Gen Kyaw Ba, whose presence, along with three other SLORC ministers, four Cabinet ministers, lent strong political overtones to the celebration. Other well-known traffickers were also in attendance.

Lo Hsing Han's drug links to the top levels of SLORC are well documented. A memo from the Thai government's Office of Narcotics Control Board names SLORC's military intelligence chief, Gen. Khin Nyunt, as one "supporter."

Steven Law is the managing director of Asia World Company Limited, a trading and development firm in Rangoon whose chairman is his father, Lo Hsing Han. Founded in 1992, Asia World reports its "authorized capital" to have been $40 million, and it has since invested an estimated $200 million in construction projects around Rangoon. In a joint venture with SLORC, Law's company was given a 25-year contract in April for a new wharf in Yangon Port, which handles more than 90 percent of Burma's exports. With SLORC's blessing, one of the world's biggest heroin traffickers will thus soon own and operate a port sending ships loaded with cargo to the United States and countries around the world. (While Steven Law is being honored in Burma, he has been forbidden entrance into the United States due to "suspicion of involvement in narcotics trafficking," according to a State Department official who asked not to be named.)

The SLORC's budding relationship with the recently "surrendered" Khun Sa, the world's most wanted heroin smuggler, was by all accounts a leap forward in the junta's solidification of the narco-dictatorship. In January of this year, the SLORC ceremoniously welcomed Khun Sa and his associates into Rangoon as "our own blood brethern." Intelligence chief Khin Nyunt said in a speech that "we will look after them well on humanitarian grounds for the sake of national spirit." Drug expert Bertil Lintner sums up the reality of the situation: "Khun Sa's 'surrender' has brought the last warlord out of the jungles and into Rangoon - where he, like everybody else these days, can continue his business. Millions of dollars have been transferred from bank accounts abroad to Rangoon since Khun Sa settled there."

In previous years, the SLORC had claimed it could not crack down on drugs due to Khun Sa's control of Shan State, and that his surrender would result in substantial reduction in drug exports. "On the contrary, there will be more opium," Khun Sa mused before securing his deal, knowing it would give the

SLORC access to his refineries in Shan State. Banpot Piamdee, head of the Northern Narcotics Prevention and Suppression Centre in Thailand, and international narcotics agents confirmed that Khun Sa's surrender has done nothing to stem the flow of heroin out of Burma. In fact, the State Department's annual opium survey shows that this year's harvest was 9 percent larger than last year's. Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, called the SLORC's new partnership with Khun Sa a "defeat for the control of drugs in all our countries."

It is hardly surprising that the SLORC refused a U.S. offer of $2 million to extradite Khun Sa to stand trial here. (Khun Sa was indicted in a U.S. court in December 1989 on charges of smuggling more than $350 million worth of heroin into the United States between 1986 and 1988.)

Outside Rangoon, SLORC local commanders and their brigades carry out policies that actively promote the expansion of poppy growing. Payoffs, kickbacks and extortion by the military in connection with opium growing and drug transport are factors of daily life for most villagers.

Loong Kyong, a 45-year-old Shan farmer who fled to Thailand, told human rights investigators this past May that Burmese soldiers actually encourage rice farmers to substitute opium for their rice crop. "The reason the Burmese say not to grow rice is that if you grow rice you have to give some to the rebel groups, and to others, and you have to get your rice milled," he said. "So they say just grow opium and you can easily get money and buy your rice. The military will buy the opium."

All over Burma, rural communities are succumbing to the supplies of cheap heroin distributed unchecked in their villages. "Drug users and retail drug dealers can increasingly be found everywhere," reports the Shan Herald Agency for News. "Amphetamines and heroin are being bought and sold like vegetables from roadside peddlers." Rangoon and Mandalay, Burma's second largest city, are also facing heroin epidemics.

Needle sharing, a proliferation of brothels, a dearth of public education and virtually no medical care have created an explosion in the number of AIDS cases, with dangerous implications for the region. The U.N. reports that 60 percent to 70 percent of IV drug users in Burma are HIV positive. (Even the SLORC acknowledges that there are more than 400,000 HIV positive-people in Burma.) The World Health Organization figure for the overall number of addicts is close to 500,000, or 1 percent of the population, but other experts say that a more realistic figure is 2 percent to 4 percent. Millions of migrants are pouring out of Burma into neigboring Thailand, China and India, carrying HIV with them. The Southeast Asian Information Network points to the dramatic correlation between the heroin routes out of Burma and the rise of the AIDS epidemic in the country's neighbors. The highest rates of HIV infection in both China and India lie right at the border with Burma.

There is a direct correlation between the rise in heroin production in Burma and a resurgence of heroin use in the past five years in the United States. Government figures show that the volume of heroin imported into this country, and likewise heroin consumption, has doubled since the mid-eighties. The amount of Burmese heroin sold in New York City has tripled since 1989, according to Jane's Intelligence Review. The March State Department report and interviews with U.S. officials indicate that more than 60 percent of heroin seized in the United States comes from Burma.

Yet this is a story that goes beyond the realm of human rights: Burma's ruling junta appears willing to addict an entire nation to drugs, both by setting up a long-term financial dependency on the heroin trade and by fostering a massive upsurge in drug usage. And the enormous financial payout from the SLORC's pro-drug policies helps the narco-dictatorship secure its hold on power against a struggling democracy movement.

Meanwhile, the heroin pipeline from Burma to the United States is opened up full blast, and mainlining has become trendy among U.S. youth. San Francisco Police Sgt. John Murphy said in July that buying heroin in his city is "as easy as buying a pack of cigarettes."

Dennis Bernstein is an associate editor with Pacific News Service. Leslie Kean is co-author of "Burma's Revolution of the Spirit: The Struggle for Democratic Freedom and Dignity" (Aperture). This abridged article was reprinted with permission from the Dec. 16, 1996, issue of The Nation.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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