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The Wa Conundrum

By Bertil Lintner

Research into Burma's drug situation provokes different views on how to handle main offenders the Wa, who claim they are stopping opium production.

Trouble in the Triangle: Opium and Conflict in Burma, edited by Martin Jelsma, Tom Kramer and Pietje Vervest.Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 2005. 231 pages

Despite decades of drug enforcement activities and costly crop substitution programs, the Burmese sector of the infamous Golden Triangle remains one of the world's foremost sources of illicit drugs. First, it was opium and its derivative heroin; then, in more recent years, synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines and a low-grade type of ecstasy have been flooding local and world markets. Much of this production takes place in northeastern areas controlled by the United Wa State Army, an offshoot of the now defunct insurgent Communist Party of Burma, which made peace with the Rangoon regime in 1989.

To discuss the way forward, and alternative policies to those which had failed, the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute and the Burma Center Netherlands in 2003 jointly started a drugs and conflict project in Burma, and held an international conference to discuss engagement with Burma on drugs policies. This book is a collection of 10 papers which were presented at that conference, but the outcome is a mixed bag of views and assessments.

Some of them are excellent, especially Adrian Cowell's paper on the anarchic conditions in Shan State, where the Wa live, which have turned it into Asia's main drug-producing area. Cowell, a British filmmaker, has spent more time inside the Golden Triangle than any other independent observer--and little has changed since he, in the early 1970s, made his classic documentary "The Opium Warlords;" only the cast of characters in the trade, and the type of drugs, are different.

Tom Kramer, a Dutch political scientist, examines the ceasefire agreements between Rangoon and the UWSA, and other former rebel armies. He believes that a human disaster may be looming in the Wa Hills if the UWSA goes ahead with a total ban on opium cultivation, which it promised to implement in 2005. Poverty, Kramer argues, is the main reason why the Wa and other ethnic minorities in Burma grow opium, and, therefore, living standards have to improve before any substantial reduction in the Golden Triangle's poppy production can be expected. That may be true, but part of the problem is also that today the Wa, a poor hill tribe, are being held hostage by a self-appointed, tightly-knit group of "leaders." They are three brothers and their close associates--who not only oversee the production and the trade in drugs in their area, but who are also involved in illegal alien smuggling, gun trading, prostitution rackets, and gambling.

Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, a leader of the Shan ethnic group until his death in 2004, warned that regimes and states in the so-called developing world "are perfectly capable of and skilled in playing mind games with the international community, the UN, and foreign experts"--in other words, a critical approach to the drug issue and what is claimed by its various actors is necessary. Sadly, Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, Cowell, and the Thai journalist Don Pathan, are almost the only contributors to this volume who seem to be reporting realities from the ground and not just repeating assurances by the UWSA leadership and its ally, the military government in Rangoon.

Seen in that perspective, it is worth noting the contribution by Jeremy Milsom, a consultant to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, who, the introduction says, "has lived in Burma since 1993." Remarkably, he treats the leaders of the UWSA as if they were representatives of the governments of Canada or Norway, taking all their outlandish claims at face value. He even questions whether the methamphetamine production in the Golden Triangle is controlled by the UWSA and its officers--an issue which Pathan deals with in convincing detail in his chapter.

However, since Milson wrote his opus on real or imagined developments in the Wa Hills, all major leaders of the UWSA, including its commander Bao Yuxiang and his two brothers, have been indicted in absentia by a federal court in the US on drug trafficking charges. Another prominent UWSA leader, Wei Hsueh-Kang, an ethnic Han Chinese, already had a US $2 million reward on his head after being convicted of heroin trafficking 10 years ago. And despite a very recent reduction in poppy cultivation inside the UWSA area, the methamphetamine trade is booming like never before, with millions of tablets pouring over the border into Thailand alone.

While demonizing the Wa leadership may not help, as Milson states, whitewashing a bunch of notorious drug traffickers is even worse. A disclaimer after Milson's article states that "this chapter is based on the author's independent research and in no way represents the views of the UNODC." Let's sincerely hope that is not the case.

This article first appeared in The Irrawaddy, November 2005

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