A few days before Burma exploded into the world headlines, the annual US State Department report ranking nations on their narcotics control efforts listed the Rangoon regime as among those not making the cut. Twenty countries were listed as major drug producers or exporters, but only Burma and Venezuela were found to have demonstrably failed to make substantial efforts to adhere to international counter-narcotics agreements or cooperate with Washington in accordance with US anti-drug laws.
Governments determined to have failed in anti-drug efforts can face major cuts in US aid, though the president has authority to waive penalties, if it is determined to be in the US national interest. Other countries among the 20 were Afghanistan and Colombia—the largest producers of, respectively, illicit opium and cocaine.
To drive home the irony, at a news briefing Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Counter-narcotics Christy McCampbell commended both the Afghan and Colombian governments for their anti-drug efforts, but had harsh words for Venezuela. “We still do work with the police there and do eradication efforts,” said McCampbell. “One of our greatest concerns, though, is the corruption there with narco-trafficking. And it is such a transit country. It is just becoming a real hub for drugs moving on through that country. A lot of it is going to Europe. It is not necessarily all coming to the United States. But we need to come to an agreement with them.” She said President Bush has waived aid penalties so that the US can continue support “beleaguered democratic institutions in Venezuela.”
Of course Colombia, by far the biggest US aid recipient in Latin America, is currently mired in a scandal linking the administration of President Alvaro Uribe to the “illegal” right-wing paramilitary groups—whose leaders are wanted in the US on drug-trafficking charges. Meanwhile opium has boomed in Afghanistan under US occupation.
The report found that Burma, long a top opium exporter, is now the largest source of methamphetamine in Asia. Aid penalties were not waived for Burma. (VOA, Reuters, Sept. 17) But Burma’s scolding by the State Department is also a source of much irony for those who have followed the twists and turns of Washington’s relations with the Burmese dictatorship.
Since a 1988 uprising against the 26-year dictatorship of Gen. Ne Win was brutally put down, Burma has been run by a group of generals who took power and installed an even more ruthless dictatorship under the name of the State Law & Order Restoration Council—officially rendered as the clichéd, Ian Flemingesque acronym SLORC. The junta rules by decree. There is no constitution, and martial law restricts freedom of speech and assembly. In the wave of repression after taking power, the SLORC slaughtered and imprisoned thousands of pro-democracy dissidents in the cities and tribal villagers in the mountains. Amnesty International cites hundreds of “prisoners of conscience” and widespread torture. Elections were held in 1990. But when Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy won by a landslide, SLORC had the election anulled and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest. She became the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The SLORC officially renamed the country “Myanmar” in a transparent play to anti-West nationalism. (The name “Burma” is associated with the British colonial rulers, who departed after World War II.) But the opposition refuses to recognize the name change. The SLORC’s human rights record and treatment of the country’s numerous ethnic minorities have been even worse than that of the Brits.
Anti-West bluster notwithstanding, until recently the regime was actively courting Western investment and tourism, as well as “counternarcotics” aid. As in Colombia or Mexico, a regime itself in bed with drug traffickers sought “counternarcotics” aid to police rebellious peasant regions.
The regime has long been running a grisly counterinsurgency war against tribal peoples in the eastern mountains along the borders with Thailand, Laos and China. This region is now the most productive part of the opium-growing “Golden Triangle.” With tribal armies seeking money for guns—some fighting the SLORC, some collaborating with it—Burma’s mountainous east in the ’90s became the world’s most intensive opium cultivation zone. (It has since been surpassed by Afghanistan.)
The most notorious and powerful of these opium warlords was Khun Sa, who defiantly commanded an army of Shan tribespeople and presided over a heroin empire for generations. Although not an ethnic Shan (he was originally dispatched by Burma’s government to pacify the Shan in the early ’60s), he ruled the Shan country as a de facto independent state, first as head of the Shan State Army, which, after merging with rival Shan militias, was redubbed in 1985 the Mong Tai Army (MTA). The Rangoon regime, in turn, cultivated the United Wa State Army (UWSA) as a proxy force to fight the MTA—with the region’s lucrative opium harvest as the goad.
In January 1996, Khun Sa peacefully surrendered to SLORC troops. Ensconced as a permanent “guest” of the military in Rangoon, he was protected by the SLORC from extradition to the US. “He paid millions to a general to guarantee his peaceful retirement after his surrender,” an officer of Khun Sa’s army told the Associated Press. Presumably, this sum exceeded the $2 million US reward offer. (BurmaNet News, Jan. 14, 1996)
Shortly thereafter, The Economist cluelessly reported on economically-isolated Burma’s “mysterious boom,” with new skyscrapers sprouting in Rangoon and economic growth rates catching up with Southeast Asia’s “feverish norm.” Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from five years of house arrest in 1995, said, “The so-called boom is an artificial one.” (BurmaNet News, April 12, 1996)
Although said to be in ill health, the once-mighty Khun Sa was still peacefully residing in military custody in Rangoon in 1999, when his former followers last had contact with him. (Shan Herald News Agency, May 29, 1999)
The prosperity was fueled by the SLORC’s outlaw enterprises. SLORC-connected timber companies raped the eastern rainforests, using slave labor that tribal villages were forced to supply. SLORC troops massacred and forcibly relocated Karen and Mon tribespeople who dared to resist.
Top among SLORC outlaw enterprises, of course, was the opium trade. As rebellious regions were pacified, the bigger the SLORC’s slice of the heroin trade grew. Presumably, the deal cut between the SLORC and the Shan army after Khun Sa’s surrender mirrored those cut in 1989 and 1993, respectively, with the Wa and Kachin armies—allowing economic and military autonomy in return for official recognition of Burmese sovereignty over their territories. The Wa and Kachin opium trade, of course, happily continued—only this time with the SLORC getting a cut of the profits.
Burma has been found ineligible for US aid due to “insufficient narcotics control” every year since the SLORC coup. But the West continued to play ball with the junta. Despite the supposed “decertification,” the DEA maintained an office in Burma and cooperated with the SLORC in supposed “counter-narcotics” efforts, pulling off the occasional big bust for show purposes. (“Current Situation in Burma,” US State Department, June 2002) The DEA has actually protested Burma’s decertification, continuing to see the SLORC as the “good guys” and the tribal armies as the “bad guys.” The unseemly inter-agency squabbling even resulted in a lawsuit by former DEA Burma chief Richard A. Horn against the State Department and CIA, who he says bugged his phone and generally thwarted his efforts to coordinate with the SLORC’s supposed “opium crackdown.” (Narco News, Sept. 7, 2004)
While most Western corporations succumbed to pressure from human rights activists to pull out of Burma, the US refused to impose trade sanctions such as those in place against Cuba or Iraq. The US remained the fourth-biggest investor in the SLORC regime.
In an Orwellian move, the SLORC changed its name in 1997 to the State Peace & Development Council (SPDC), attempting to clean up its nasty image. The PR makeover didn’t appease the international human rights community, but was convenient propaganda for a return of Western “counternarcotics” aid to the brutal dictatorship.
In 2003, Washington labeled the UWSA a narcotics-trafficking organization and announced a $2 million bounty on the head of its leader, Wei Hsueh-Kang. Simultaneously the SPDC/SLORC turned against its former ally, and began supporting the Shan against the Wa. Entire Wa villages were destroyed and relocated under the guise of opium eradication. (Reuters, Sept. 10, 2007)
That same year, Aung San Suu Kyi was again placed under house arrest—where she remains to this date. Ethnic cleansing campaigns also continue to this day—now mostly directed at the Karen people. The US finally imposed sanctions on Rangoon in 2003—but only after the US firm Unocal had completed construction of a pipeline to export gas from Burma’s Yadana fields to Thailand. The pipeline cuts right through Karen and Mon territory, and Unocal was forced to settle in an international lawsuit charging the firm was complicit with ethnic cleansing and forced labor.
With Asia’s geopolitical lines redrawn since 9-11 and international human rights groups bringing pressure to bear on Washington, Rangoon has increasingly thrown its lot in with China—which has blocked moves to censure Burma over rights abuses at the UN. (VOA, Jan. 13, 2007) The new State Department narcotics report is the clearest evidence that the junta has finally been cut loose.
But, as we know all too well, demonizing dictatorships is as much a function of imperial realpolitik as coddling them. Burma’s tribal peoples and pro-democracy dissidents alike will have to beware of becoming pawns in the ongoing shadow war for oil and opium.