How the CIA bedded down in Burma – OpEd


By Joseph Allchin

“…in pursuit of the fundamental US goals of peace, democracy and reconciliation in Burma.”- US Congressional Statement, October 2009.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) chief was asked to come to the transmissions room in the US embassy in Rangoon. It was 1992 and Richard Horn had only recently been made DEA chief in what was then the world’s largest producer of heroin, Burma.

“A day or two after Horn had this conversation over the phone with another DEA agent, a guy at the embassy that runs all the transmissions told Horn that he may want to look at something. It was a cable from Huddle to Huddle’s headquarters, quoting verbatim a conversation that Horn had had two nights before,” says Brian Leighton, Richard Horn’s lawyer for one of the longest-running court cases in US history, Horn vs. Huddle & Brown.

Huddle and Brown were officially State Department, but in reality Brown worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), one of the US’ many intelligence bodies with a long history in Southeast Asia, whilst Huddle assisted the agency from his position as Charges d’Affaires of the Rangoon embassy.

“The lawsuit was a class action in which they were accusing the CIA of interfering with their anti-drug activities,” explains investigative journalist Dennis Bernstein.

“Horn’s confrontation came in Burma when he was trying to cut a deal through the UN to get a crop substitution program in place. He had people he was working with towards that end, not in a legal way but in a quiet way because so much of this was controversial with the military; a monster of a dictatorship, a narco-dictatorship really.”

Leighton continues: “[Arthur] Brown, the CIA official, requested Horn to introduce him to his liaison with the Burmese government, introduce him to his informants, then they requested the DEA to provide in documents the names and dates of birth of their informants, allegedly so the CIA knows that if they deal with a person they know that he or she is also an informant for DEA, which is bullshit.”

One informant was a man named U Saw Lu, a Wa ethnic leader who was a DEA ‘asset’. He inspired Horn with the ‘novel’ drug eradication plan that involved crop substitution and foreign aid to wean drug-producing areas away from manufacturing.

What the Horn case documents is a spat between US government departments or the people representing them which resulted in a 16-year legal battle, a US$3 million payout for the plaintiff, and which saw the CIA lie in court about Brown’s security status, claiming at the time that he was covert when in actual fact he was not.

In any case nobody in the CIA was held accountable and the reasons for the spat are even murkier still. Despite having represented Horn for 16 years, Leighton knows little about the situation in Burma during the time his client was allegedly bugged by the CIA. Horn also refused to speak when approached by DVB.

The dispute is therefore presented as a simple case of an anti-drugs agency, the DEA, trying pragmatically to work with the Burmese government to fight ethnic rebels who are opposed to the despotic, yet drug-free junta, whom the CIA wants to remove. But this, it seems, could not be further from the truth.

US-trained torturers

Khun Myint Tun is an MP-elect from the 1990 elections for Thaton in Mon state, running for the National League for Democracy (NLD). As it became apparent that the NLD would win the polls, the military government prevented parliament from sitting, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But like many MP’s, Khun Myint Tun was arrested for the so-called crime of being selected by a democratic mandate, and like many prisoners in Burma, his welcome to captivity was torture. During his torture however his captors, members of Burma’s military intelligence (MI) – at the time known as the Directorate of Defence Services Intelligence (DDSI) – told him that they had been trained by the US.

Why had members of a military intelligence under the Burmese Path to Socialism era been trained in the bastion of ‘freedom and democracy’, possibly in torture techniques, almost certainly in how to interrogate peaceable democrats?

One such American-trained intelligence officer is a man named Aung Lynn Htut, who has since defected and now resides in the US. He told DVB that he had studied in the US on a “special course…with the CIA. I studied VIP special security course – at that time I studied a shooting course, driving course, incident management”.

This was in 1987, a year before Burmese students would take to the streets and the world would start to roundly condemn the brutal dictatorship controlling the country.

“Before 1988 our intelligence and American intelligence was very close,” he says, before adding however that the now-defunct DDSI had later ferried CIA agents around Burma in their helicopters on trips to see northern ethnic rebels. “At that time in our intelligence office there were around 30 officers who had taken the course with the CIA in the US. But the CIA recommended me, and between 1992 and at least 2000, we did an opium yield survey with the CIA agents.”

Other sources speak of a close relationship between the agents of the CIA and the DDSI during the nineties, as the two played tennis together and enjoyed a social relationship outside of work; or, as prominent Burma journalist and scholar, Bertil Lintner, put it, the CIA were “practically in bed with the [DDSI]”.

So after 1988 the CIA was actively working with both DDSI and the DEA on its counter-narcotics operations. As Huddle was fishing around for information on Horn’s “assets”, and during the time that courts reveal that Horn was bugged, one of these so-called assets, U Saw Lu, is believed to have informed Horn of the business dealings of a DDSI officer. He allegedly told Horn that the late Major Than Aye was involved in the drugs trade. Major Than Aye was based in Lashio in Burma’s eastern Shan state where the majority of the heroin is produced.

“Major Than Aye was one of my bosses, he was very close with the ethnics along the northern border” says Aung Lynn Htut. “I remember U Saw Lu – at the time he was very close with the DEA chief, Richard Horn. Richard was very tough; Horn and CIA was a problem!”

Indeed before long Major Than Aye had caught up with U Saw Lu and the whistleblower was captured. According to investigative journalist Dennis Bernstein, U Saw Lu was hung upside down for 56 days with 220 electrodes clipped to his body; when he passed out, a doctor was on hand to revive him by pouring a bucket of urine over his face. Major Than Aye oversaw the torture; a vindictive punishment, perhaps combined with the ‘refined’ techniques of the world’s most omnipresent intelligence agency.

On death’s door U Saw Lu was saved by the Wa leader Chao Ngi Lai, who phoned then-head of DDSI, Khin Nyunt, and said the ceasefire deal between the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Burma’s largest ethnic army, and the junta was over unless U Saw Lu was released. Needless to say, the junta knew how much money the Wa and other northern drug producers had: a number of banks owned by them and their business cronies are widely believed to have laundered money for them in Rangoon. The junta therefore knew how many guns the Wa could buy, and U Saw Lu was released.

Indeed Major Than Aye was said to have been dealing with none other than Lo Hsing Han, a man who started his career in the CIA-backed Kuomintang (KMT) Chinese nationalists who fought out of the Shan hills in their failed attempts at raiding communist China. Their major source of income was the heroin trade, which as prominent historian Alfred McCoy has exhaustively documented, was ferried to markets in the CIA’s infamous Air America airline.

Lo’s underground businesses went from strength to strength and his ‘legitimate’ enterprise, the sanctions-listed Asia World Company, was set up with the profits from the drugs and which he ran with elements of the Burmese state.

Asia World is now a major recipient of contracts from the junta, with its fingers in the Shwe gas pipeline, the Myitsone dam and other lucrative, and often Chinese-funded, projects, and through such patronage is one of Burma’s largest conglomerates. Its ample wealth is enough to support Lo’s son, Steven Law, as he races round Rangoon and Singapore in his Lamborghini.

So how had Major Than Aye known that U Saw Lu was a DEA asset and that he had informed them of his activities? Could a bugged conversation between Horn and Saw Lu have been the subject of discussion over a post-tennis whiskey between CIA and DDSI agents, just as Horn’s conversations were with colleagues back in Washington?

Khin Nyunt meanwhile was at this time an important player in the Burmese junta, both as Prime Minister and intelligence chief, and seen as number three in the chain of command. He was also thought to be a fairly approachable character for the west; as Dr Zarni of the London School of Economics (LSE) notes, he was viewed as “the only general in the country whom the outside world could do business with”.

Cautious belief in Khin Nyunt was fairly common, even though his intelligence network was an imposing enemy of anybody pushing for progressive change in Burma, as well as involvement in the brutal suppression of activists which included torture of the sort meted upon U Saw Lu with training from the CIA. However it is believed that his network of spies had become too powerful and too friendly with western diplomats and interests, and may have sought to betray Than Shwe’s established order.

As Aung Lynn Htut recalls, “Khin Nyunt and parties tried to approach the US government via the CIA and other people. They wanted understanding between the American and Burmese government”.

In any case Khin Nyunt would have been a key player in arranging for his spooks to get training from the CIA in the States, even though this was a long-running program. His style was very different to the reclusive Than Shwe’s: Lintner recalls him as “flamboyant” and hungry for attention.

Khin Nyunt was renowned for making strategic ententes with opposition blocks, a facet that was extremely successful at neutralising any serious alliance between the ethnic armies and the democracy movement, as ethnic armies signed a slew of treaties with the junta which sidelined them to the feudal warlording and narco-business that has entombed many regions in medieval poverty, while a few families traipse the countryside in huge 4-wheel drives.

The intelligence chief’s connections in the US meanwhile were deep, particularly in the early 2000s when he worked to repair relations with Washington. This time was seen as the most hopeful for Washington-backed reform in Burma. Then, it all seemingly dried up as Khin Nyunt was removed from office by Than Shwe in 2004, initially on the pretense of “health reasons”.

So was the CIA really working to fight drugs and defend human rights? If the personnel they chose to associate with are anything to go by, these considerations were far from their priority.

Vested interests

The thaw of the Cold War has hardly set in in the hills of northern Burma, where the battles between communists and western-backed groups have heirs everywhere. But could the US be fighting a new cold war or, in the parlance of our days, a ‘soft war’ against China?

In the 1930s, shortly after the crash of 1929, the capitalist system had heaped distress upon working people the world over and the Soviet Union looked like it could dominate the rest of the century with its apparently starkly different system. The ensuing post-war period gave the world the Cold War in which in all corners of the globe, the two protagonists battled it out for client states. The architecture of that war is still in place, with US nuclear weapons still waiting to the south and west of Russia and thousands of US forces stationed globally. The intelligence services however were as integral to that war as any faculty of either force.

In fighting this war, intelligence services backed enemies of enemies seemingly without consideration for justice or any semblance of concern for the desires of the inhabitants of the client states, spawning such movements as the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, dictators like Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Joseph Mobutu in Zaire, or the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. In Burma, leaders such as Ne Win were quietly supported, whilst the anti-Mao KMT forces were allowed, and apparently even assisted, to produce narcotics to fight the enemy to north.

Such information is often the result of exhaustive journalistic endeavours, ones that, as the case of Gary Webb demonstrate, sometimes come at great cost. And so it is that our times and this region have been wracked by stand-offs in areas like the South China Sea as both powers posture and seduce the smaller nations of the region like cheap wrestlers at a dubious fair.

With each small nation on a veritable swing-ometer of allegiance, the US recently celebrated the 15th anniversary of its normalisation of relations with Vietnam, a small nation deemed so “terrifying” 50 years ago that it induced the dropping of 300 tons of bombs for every man, woman and child of that country, by sending a nuclear-powered ‘super carrier’, the USS George Washington, to its waters: a sadly ironic gesture given the brutality that continuation of hegemony requires.

As US-based intelligence firm Stratfor notes, “there is the added fear that as China becomes stronger, the United States will become more aggressive.”

The impetus to combat China can easily be seen and it is this that Bernstein suspects is a primary motive of US intelligence in the post-war period. “The CIA was really interested in something else; they wanted to use [Burma]. This is the emerging China century, the CIA is interested in the border, they are interested in the influences China has in the region… So the CIA is being more like a corporate frontline police force, ‘cleansing’ to make way for business. They weren’t interested in crop substitution or trying to end the poppy trade or trying to end the flow of heroin into the US – that was the cross-purpose; that’s how Horn came into this and in the process several of Horn’s sources were brutally tortured.”

That Burma is a strategic goal for China is undeniable: the Shwe gas pipeline is ample evidence, and this context provides little reason why the US can afford not to take action.

Lintner corroborates that “covertly cooperation continues [between the Burmese intelligence and CIA after 1988] and the main reason for that is China”, but he contends that the relationship goes back right the way to the Burmese Path to Socialism and Ne Win, a man whom Lintner describes as a “fascist” and whose fight with communism was armed by the west, most prominently the US.

Dr Zarni sees it differently: “If US intelligence was interested in Burma vis-a-vis China’s influence, the opposition would be getting everything it needs to change the regime.”

So why hasn’t the CIA backed the opposition in its attempts to hedge out China? Lintner talks of CIA officials in Burma lampooning him and other journalists for giving the junta “bad press” during their blood-soaked suppression of opposition protests in 1988. “The CIA has always had its own agenda and it has nothing to do with democracy or human rights or anything like that,” he tells DVB. “It’s other issues like China.” As the backing of Ne Win, or the examples of Laos and Cambodia demonstrate, the CIA is not prone to back neutralist open governments; reactionary, violent men like Khin Nyunt, Chiang Kai-shek, Suharto and Ne Win serve them the best.

So as the chords of America’s founding father’s echo in the speeches and statements of elected leaders, it seems that the CIA is, in reality, the ‘pragmatist’ hidden beneath a vocal, sugar-coated crust, with little real impetus or effect. As Aung Lynn Htut told DVB, “the CIA is a policy maker” fashioning policies as devoid of ideals and justice as any political body, and with the singular ruthless aim of furthering US strategic and political power whatever the cost.

“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action” – George Washington, 1st President of the United States

Democratic Voice of Burma

The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) is a non-profit Burmese media organization committed to responsible journalism.

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