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    Southeast Asia
     Oct 23, 2007
UN fiddles while Myanmar burns
By Bertil Lintner

CHIANG MAI, Thailand - Are the United Nations and its agencies becoming part of the problem rather than the solution in Myanmar? That is what many Myanmar people are asking themselves as UN Special envoy Ibrahim Gambari appears to be a lame duck, unable to persuade the ruling generals to agree to anything more than appointing a deputy labor minister, Major General Aung Kyi, to "liaise" with detained pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Myanmar government has blatantly rejected an urging by the

UN Security Council for restraint and continues to arrest people who took part in street demonstrations last month. At the same time, critics have also begun to question the activities of various UN agencies in Myanmar.

On October 4, the Irrawaddy, an independent magazine and website run by Burmese exiles in Thailand, published an online commentary highly critical of the head of the United Nations Development Program's (UNDP's) resident representative in Yangon, Charles Petrie. He was accused of making interviews during the turmoil to international TV networks, which were "meaningless" and "outraged educated and politically active" people in Myanmar.

Earlier this year, the UNDP was forced to dismiss four of its staff in Yangon. According to Petrie himself, two had "borrowed" project money, which had been deposited for "village micro projects", while one had "failed to report the misuse of funds" and the fourth was dismissed because of "non-performance", Petrie stated in a reply to questions submitted from Asia Times Online by e-mail.

Now, in October 2007, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, UNODC, has presented a report on poppy cultivation in Myanmar, which, according to critics, contains a number of shortcomings and dubious assertions, which also run contrary to several reports compiled by the independent Shan Herald Agency for News, SHAN, which is run by ethnic Shan living on the Thai-Myanmar border.

While the UNODC report admits that poppy cultivation has actually increased since 2006, it talks about progress and, in the words of UNODC's Myanmar representative, Shariq Bin Raza, "impressive achievements". SHAN accuses the ruling military of collusion in the drug trade, and "show business" to appease the international community and that UNODC projects to start tea plantations in areas formerly used for opium cultivation near the Chinese border "failed with a big loss".

What has been achieved, both UNODC and SHAN seem to agree, is that poppy cultivation inside areas along the Chinese border, which are controlled by local armies and until 1989 by units of the now defunct Communist Party of Burma, CPB, has diminished. In that year, the hill-tribe rank-and-file of the CPB's army mutinied against the party's mainly Burman Maoist leadership and drove them into exile in China.

The CPB subsequently split up along ethnic lines into four different armies, of which the United Wa State Army, UWSA, is now the most powerful. The ex-CPB mutineers also entered into cease-fire agreements with the government in Yangon, according to which they were allowed to retain their arms and control of their respective areas.

They were also allowed to trade in whatever they wanted, which led to a dramatic surge in opium production in the 1990s. The derivative heroin was also manufactured in the UWSA-controlled area, and the group soon began to protect the production of methamphetamines as well. According to official statistics from the United States State Department, the 1987 harvest for Myanmar - before the CPB mutiny - yielded 836 tons of raw opium; by 1995 production had increased to 2,340 tons.

Enter the UN
The United Nations was around then invited to start crop substitution and other development programs in the former CPB-controlled area. As a result, and because of vigorous enforcement by the UWSA leadership, a virtually opium-free zone has been created along the Chinese border.

But, as SHAN director Khuensai Jaiyen said at a presentation at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok in September this year: "Myanmar's war on drugs has targeted only certain 'token' areas, only in the north and not in the south and central Shan State." Shan State for years has been Myanmar's main opium producing area, and that remains the case also today.

Further, Khuensai said, "eradication efforts have had a 'balloon effect', pushing cultivation in the north to the south and central. There is also opium cultivation in western Shan State, where opium has never been grown before." He also said that the Myanmar military "has an interest in maintaining opium production" because the number of government battalions in Shan State since 1988 to present has increased from 33 to 141. "The government policy of 'self-sufficiency' for soldiers has deepened the military's involvement in the trade," Khuensai said.

The recent UNODC report does not mention official complicity in the trade. In fact, the report's only reference to the collection of "tax" on drug production in Shan State is a claim that Shan State Army-South, SSA-S, an anti-government rebel army, has encouraged local farmers "to cultivate opium in their area, so they (SSA-S) can gain tax." When contacted by e-mail by AToL, the Yangon-based UNODC researcher Xavier Bouan conceded that all armies in the area, including the government's, "are taxing this crop" - which the UNODC did not mention in the actual report.

SHAN has produced two main reports on drugs in Myanmar, "Show Business: Rangoon's 'War on Drugs' in Shan State" in December 2003, and "Hand in Glove: The Burma Army and the Drug Trade in Shan State" in August 2005. Both reports name Myanmar army officers who are directly involved in the trade, and have maps showing how the poppy cultivation has shifted from the Chinese border areas further inland in Shan State.

SHAN reports also deal in great detail with the skyrocketing production of methamphetamines in Shan State, mainly in areas controlled by the UWSA. By contrast, the UNODC report does not even mention the manufacture of such synthetic drugs, which appears to be how drug lords affiliated with the UWSA have "substituted" their loss of income from the opium and heroin trade along the Chinese frontier. Millions of pills, known as yaa baa, or Thai for "madness medicine", are flooding into Thailand, causing severe social problems especially in the north, close to the production areas across the border in Myanmar.

Flimsy research
UNODC defends its stance by saying that their concern is only opium, not synthetic drugs - but that seems a strange strategy for the elimination of drugs in Myanmar. And by concentrating on the "project areas" along the Chinese frontier, UNODC also seems to be neglecting the production of opium in other parts of Myanmar, which even the UN agency admits is increasing.

According to the UNODC's recently released report, opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar increased by 29% from 2006 to 2007, or from 315 to 460 tons. But it is reasonable to believe that the increase has been more dramatic than that; the UNODC report admits that its surveyors were not permitted to assess the situation to Sagaing Division adjacent to India - where other sources have reported an increase in opium production.

Perhaps even more telling of government interference, the UNODC report states that their researchers did not find any poppies during a trip in February this year to "northern Chin State", another part of Myanmar bordering India. However, reports by India-based organizations - for instance the Mizzima News Group based in New Delhi - state that poppies are being grown in other areas, to which the UNODC team was not taken to by the authorities.

Equally puzzling is the UNODC's silence on the UWSA, the authority that controls and governs the agency's main project area along the Chinese frontier. In January 2005, eight major leaders of the UWSA, including its commander Bao Yuxiang and his two brothers, were indicted in absentia by a federal court in the US on charges of heroin and methamphetamine trafficking. Another prominent UWSA leader, Wei Xuegang, an ethnic Han Chinese who is one of the eight, already had a US$2 million reward on his head after being convicted of heroin trafficking 10 years ago. In addition, US authorities are believed to have unsealed indictments against another dozen or so drug lords, who are operating under the UWSA umbrella.

Since the indictment was issued, Bao's younger brother Bao Youhua, has died while Wei has built a heavily fortified, luxury mansion near Panghsang, the UWSA's headquarters. On July 4, 2006, Wei, twice a fugitive from justice was appointed "finance minister" in the Wa "government", thus becoming the most powerful of the UWSA's leaders.

He and his comrades have used the millions they have earned from the drug trade to buy up real estate in China and Myanmar, and, especially in Myanmar, to invest in perfectly legitimate businesses such as plastic factories, agro-industrial enterprises, mineral smelting, retail trading, import-export, and the tourist industry. One international drug enforcement official based in Thailand called Wei's business empire "one of the biggest money-laundering operations in Southeast Asia today".

So, it may, after all, be just "show business" in Yangon's and the UNODC's campaigns against drugs. At the heart of the problem is the lack of openness, transparency and accountability in Myanmar as a whole. Without a fundamental change in Myanmar's rigid military-run system, and real drug enforcement efforts, the opium derivative heroin and methamphetamines will continue to flow across Myanmar's borders. In the meantime, it seems that the UN indeed is part of the problem rather than the solution.

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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