By Joseph Allchin
A US report claims that for the second year running the Burmese government has “failed demonstrably” to meet international obligations to eradicate illegal drug production.
The criticisms mirror those made last year in the US State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, which also lumps Bolivia and Venezuela in the same category and who also, perhaps coincidentally, have frosty relations with Washington.
Burma also featured in the ‘Major Money Laundering’ list alongside the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven and a large source of foreign investment for the Southeast Asian country.
“Burma‘s drug enforcement authorities have not suppressed drug production and trafficking from the cease fire enclaves of certain ethnic minorities, primarily the region controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA),” it said.
Referring to the Wa army, which controls swathes of territory in Shan state, it adds that, “unchallenged in their base areas, criminal gangs continue to manufacture dangerous drugs and traffic those drugs to surrounding countries.”
The report indicates that the US government’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) “shared drug-related intelligence with the GOB [Government of Burma] and conducted joint drug-enforcement investigations with Burmese counternarcotics authorities”, but apparently to little avail.
In December last year a $US2 million bounty was placed on Wa druglord Wei Hsueh-kang as the DEA teamed up with Thai anti-narcotics authorities to litter popular Bangkok nightspots with wanted posters.
But according to Khunsai Jaiyen, editor of the Shan Herald Agency for News and lead author of the Shan Drug Watch newsletter, the Wa are by no means the only group behind Burma’s sizeable narcotics industry.
“The Burma Army is involved in it because they need to cut off the Wa’s income,” he said, adding that the Burmese military needs “friends to fight against the Wa and [so] have to allow them to be involved as an incentive”. He added that the self-reliance policy of Burmese army battalions also played a major factor, with troops on meagre salaries forced to provide for themselves.
The accusation routinely levelled at the Burmese government is that their own assessments of drug producers is passed on to organisations such as the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, but is heavily politicised based on their need to fight ethnic armies, as well as their own indiscretions within the industry.
Yet such an accusation could easily be levelled at the US report, implicating as it does two fierce critics of the US. Washington is also battling to contain a war on its own border with Mexico which is fuelled by US demand and weaponry, and which has claimed around 35,000 Mexican lives in just four years.
In contrast to the distinction once held by Burma of being the world’s leading source of heroin, the report claims now that “methamphetamine pills and, increasingly, the crystal form of methamphetamine are the most important drugs exported from Burma”.
The scope of the Burmese drug market was also enough to recently prompt neighbouring Thailand, which seized 32.1 million methamphetamine pills in 2010, to controversially induct a new infantry battalion to help fight the ‘drug war’ in the country’s north.
Thailand’s military budget has nearly doubled since the 2006 military coup, and the new division will be paid for out of a “secret budget” at a cost of two billion baht (US$65.5 million).
This comes despite protestations from the Thai opposition and Budget Bureau, but received backing by defence secretary Prawit, with the Nation newspaper reporting that it was “badly needed” to tackle the threat of Burmese drugs and human trafficking.