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Date: Mon, 11 Aug 97 10:49:59 CDT
Subject: Free Burma Digest (Aug 9-10): REFUGEES NEED ASSISTANCE

From: Caroline Lurie <>

Experts divided over SLORC's sincerity in tackling drugs

By Nusara Thaitawat, Bangkok Post, 8 August 1997

There are those who say we should e more pragmatic in dealing with SLORC and its anti-drug efforts, even increasing funding to assist the military junta, but others say the efforts are a sham and any extra money would go on arms.

The headline topping an article by Maung Ngwe Soe in the June 26 issue of Burma's official mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar read: "Destroy poppy fields, replace them with one hundred blossoming flowers."

But the article, together with the April declaration of Burma's first "drug-free zone", in Mongla on the Shan-Yunnan border, and the recent statement by the Minister of Progress of Border Areas, Lt-Gen Maung Thint, that all narcotic plants will be eradicated within five years, all have been dismissed.

Burma is indisputably the world's largest heroin producer. Former opium warlords such as Lo Hsing-han and Khun Sa are allowed to live freely in the country, having reportedly injected millions of dollars into helping kick-start the troubled Burmese economy over the past few years.

The Burmese military junta the State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) also is believed to be turning a blind eye to drug trafficking by several armed ethnic groups, including the Wa, Kokang and the Eastern Shan State Army, in return for them not turning their guns in its direction.

Lt-Gen Maung Thint insisted during a recent interview in Bangkok that Burma and its government had been treated unfairly and international accusations were all a misunderstanding fuelled by Washington as "punishment for refusing to submit to its will". Outsiders also do not really understand the situation inside multi-ethnic Burma, he said.

While anti-Rangoon groups are quick to dismiss Slorc's recent antidrug efforts as "a joke", a number of senior Bangkok-based international drug experts say there have been some "positive signs" since early this year and the military junta should be given a chance to prove itself.

These experts from Thailand, the United States and internation al organisations say, off the record, past strategies to encourage Slorc to crack down on drug production and trafficking have not had the desired results and a more pragmatic approach is needed.

Slorc's priorities are simply different. Countries with a large addict population want to cut supplies, especially the US, which is Burma's main market for heroin, and Thailand, its main amphetamine outlet while Rangoon wants national consolidation first and foremost.

One Western drug expert said it was possible to merge these different priorities halfway with an open mind, especially as Slorc has demonstrated its seriousness in using a political rather than a military approach to further national consolidation with ethnic minorities.

This strategy was underlined by Slorc's secretary number one, Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt, during a speech declaring Mongla a drug-free zone: ... while working for the achievement of national reconsolidation (sic) for the perpetuation of the Union, Slorc has transformed its tactics to that of cooperation with local inhabitants in combating the scourge of narcotic drugs."

The same Western drug expert said the key is to open up the country is through development projects funded by foreign countries. This will give them direct access to information on the drug situation and efforts by Slorc.

Slorc's plans to declare two more "drug-free zones", in the Kokang and Wa areas of the Shan state, two of the most fertile grounds for opium cultivation in Southeast Asia, are good opportunities for foreign countries to come in.

Lt-Gen Maung Thint said his government had reached an understanding with all ethnic groups known to be involved in drug trafficking, making it clear the policy was total eradication in exchange for development aid.

He does not deny drug trafficking still goes on, but claims it is engaged in only by people who live mostly in remote areas to feed themselves while they make the difficult transition from a generations-old, opium based economy to a legal one.

But critics say the use of political rather than military means to consolidate the country is "a sham", with Slorc having broken promises made to several ethnic groups with whom it has signed ceasefire agreements.

Slorc continues to fund its brutal military rule with drug money, ignoring calls from pro-democracy groups led by Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. The drug problem can only be solved when there is democracy and respect for human rights, say the critics.

"Slorc doesn't have the money for development; it spends too much on arming itself while there is no steady flow of revenue," said one.

Its terrible human rights record makes it very understandable why Slorc is not believed when it says it is serious about fighting drugs, but narcotics experts insist efforts must not be given up and isolating Slorc will be of no use.

The Thai government, although frustrated by its inability to stop the influx of millions of amphetamine tablets produced just across its border in Burma, seems to be the most pragmatic in dealing with the Burmese military junta.

It is engaged in a number of bilateral and multilateral projects with Burma, including a HIV/Aids awareness campaign covering Mae Sai- Tachilek using funds from the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP).

As for the US, its foreign policy priority remains the promotion of democracy and human rights, but there are indications that tough-talking senior US officials' direct attack on Slorc leaders will be supported by more funding through international organisations for anti-drug programmes in Burma.

"The positive signs" include more openness towards international cooperation in the fight against drugs: Burma has bilateral programmes with China, which is the main source of chemicals used in the production of illicit drugs, and last month it signed a $15 million (465 million baht) five-year programme with the UNDCP for an integrated development project in the Wa area.

Slorc returned drug fugitive Li Yun-Chung to Thai authorities last month Whatever the reason for turning him over, the junta could have simply kept quiet about his presence in Rangoon after he jumped bail in Bangkok.

Slorc has also stepped up suppression efforts against drug production in border areas. Pol Lt-Gen Noppadol Sombool sap, commissioner of the Thai Narcotics Suppression Bureau, said the suppression drive had forced an increasing number of mobile refineries into Thailand and Laos in recent months.

Lao authorities have been in formed of the new development, he said; in order for the three countries Burma, Laos and Thailandto coordinate their efforts in common border areas, especially in the Golden Triangle region.

"Burma is like Thailand 20-30 years ago," said a senior Thai narcotics officer who requested anonymity. "Burma needs international aid not sanctions. The more Burma is branded a bad guy, the more it will act like one."

The officer said Slorc should not be seen as a single entity where all members think alike. "There are good people within Slorc, a younger generation who do not agree with ,the current policies of senior leaders, who want development and openness, but their time has not come yet."

It is important for the international community to lay a strong foundation for rural development in mainly ethnic minority areas on which this younger generation can build when the senior leaders are out of the way, he said.

This more pragmatic approach of "destroy poppy fields, replace them with one hundred blossoming flowers" will be impossible to implement in the five years envisaged by Lt-Gen Maung Thint. As more drug experts are willing to talk to their governments about contributing more funds to fight drugs in Burma, Slorc will have to add more "positive signs", and quickly.

Taking the example of Thailand, which has far less complicated internal problems, a conservative estimate would be 20-25 years to cut the production level to just enough for domestic consumption, mostly by elderly hilltribe addicts who use drug in a social and medical context, since there is no such a thing as total eradication.

And as Lt-Gen Maung Thint pointed out, failing to resist a chance to take a swipe at the West: "if there's no demand, there will be no supply."