Recent media attention to Myanmar, also known as Burma, has centered around the military junta’s suppression of pro-democracy activists, and its lack of cooperation with international relief agencies in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Myanmar’s much-despised military dictatorship has been around since a September 1962 coup by General Ne Win. In 1987, 1988, and 2007,its paramilitary police organization, the State Law and Order Council (SLORC) brutally suppressed pro-democracy movements and demonstrations. The regime has continuously been taking military action against ethnic and political rebels. (Source: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0107808.html) (See also Capital Crimes, 45-61) The Myanmar junta is a narco-dictatorship.
Myanmar, Thailand and Laos form the “Golden Triangle” of opium and heroin production. The highly lucrative trade in these illegal substances has resulted in political corruption, money-laundering, human-rights violations, and unending warfare between drug-warlords, governments, and groups of political rebels, all vying for control of the opium and heroin traffic.
In the name of the “War on Drugs,” the DEA will apparently support and do business with any government that offers to help. Although as a rule the dictators of drug-producing countries will offer public displays of drug enforcement and eradication to gain the favor of the DEA and the US Government, the usual purposes of these apparent anti-drug campaigns are publicity, and the protection of bribe-paying pro-government drug organizations against rivals. A mere 2 years before the invasion of Panama and the subsequent arrest of Manuel Noriega, the DEA was sending letters to Noriega “….Congratulating him on his ‘vigorous anti-drug trafficking policy’…”(Capital Crimes, 64)
Similarly, although the US State Department has repeatedly condemned the Myanmar regime for its appalling human-right record, at times the DEA has supported the opium and heroin producing narco-dictatorship:
“I believe the many of the critics of Myanmar’s [Burma’s] government for reasons based on their own narrow political considerations have purposefully ignored SLORC’s current efforts to build up a viable narcotics program. I would also respectfully point out that Myanmar can count DEA among its staunchest supporters….I and my staff will go to great lengths to make sure that the SLORC anti-narcotics successes are given the widest possible dissemination. Be assure that I and my staff will support your efforts with all the means available to us.” -DEA Attache Angelo Saladino to Major General Khin Nyunt(a known drug trafficker) March 1990 (ibid) (1)
The ability of the Myanmar junta to deliver dramatic public dramatic displays of cooperation with the DEA (2)created some major disputes between the DEA and the US state department. Myanmar’s “War on Drugs” was actually a war against a Shan warlord, “Opium King” Khun Sa, and his opium and heroin financed private army, as well as various rebel groups involved in the opium and heroin trade.
When corruption and violence appear in third-world countries, there are usually several multinational corporations near the crime-scene. Rhetoric about “free trade” is often used to justify these harmful alliances. Much like the DEA, the global-corporate elite will do business with just about anyone who will cooperate with them. Offers of low taxes and relaxed regulations, especially with regard to environmental protection will bring in big oil and logging operations, all willing to add to the wealth of dictators who have no qualms about looting the natural resources of their own countries, and torturing and killing citizens in the process
This process is not free trade. It is crime against persons and property, as blatant and violent as the worst street crime, and immeasurably more destructive. Furthermore, violent government interventions on behalf of the multinationals, and the enforcement of monopolies at gunpoint negate all illusions of ‘free-market capitalism.” Violent suppression of indigenous opposition to environmental destruction is a prime selling point for third-world dictatorships trying to create a “business friendly” climate. And where big money can be found, money laundering from the drug and illegal arms trades is nearly omnipresent. In drug producing countries these activities are a fact of life.
“Over time, some of Thailand’s most powerful politicians have owned logging companies operating in Burma and profited from Burma to Thailand, which will carry natural gas from fields owned by French oil giant Total, Unocal, Burma’s Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), and Thailand’s Petroleum Authority. This project is destroying a spectacular ecosystem that is home to 120 species of land mammals. Thai environmentalists set up camps in December 1997 to block construction-despite death threats. Villagers on the Burmese end of the line have filed a lawsuit against Unocal for the human rights abuses,, rape, torture, and other ‘crimes against humanity’ and MOGE has long been accused of being a principal means by which Burmese drug dealers launder their profits. Yet a number of major corporations,( among them Mitsubishi which is also involved in logging teak, constructing dams, and selling automobiles in Burma) are supplying materials for the pipeline, which will cost about 6.5 billion.” (Capital Crimes, p.206 emphasis mine)
While the Myanmar junta pursued its war against Khun Sa (himself a former ally, who’d attracted the negative attention of the DEA and US Justice Department) another drug lord, Lo Hsing-han, (released from prison in 1980 and allowed to return to the opium trade in return for his military actions against rebel groups), was given a new job:
“As part of its divide and conquer policy, SLORC sent him to negotiate with with rebel Wa ethnic groups and the remnants of the Communist Party of Burma [CPB] and he worked out an agreement…: rebels who signed a cease-fire with the central government were allowed to smuggle opium as long as they fought other rebels and supported the government…Heroin refineries appeared in former CPB territory and SLORC-controlled areas and the drugs continued to move over roads controlled by the military.” (Capital Crimes, 71-72, emphasis mine)
In spite of its public demonstrations of anti-drug sentiment, the Myanmar junta remained deeply involved in the opium and heroin traffic, as it does to this day. After finally suffering an overwhelming defeat in 1996 by SLORC forces, Khun Sa surrendered and was allowed to peacefully retire to Rangoon, in return for his agreement to retire, and in all likelihood, for his silence.(Capital Crimes, P. 74) Myanmar refused to extradite Khun Sa to face indictments in the US, and he was allowed to spend his considerable remaining fortune in peace. On October 26 2007, Khun Sa died a free man with considerable holdings and investments, at the age of 73. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khun_Sa)
Nothing has Changed
The flow of heroin from The Golden Triangle continues, although since US actions in Afghanistan broke the Taliban’s monopoly on Afghan opium and heroin traffic, Afghani heroin has been more plentiful in America. A vicious “drug war” by the Thai government has claimed well over 2500 lives, at least half of whom are believed to be persons not involved in the drug traffic. This drug war is believed to be a cover for actions against politcal activists and environmental groups. (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle_blog/2008/feb/08/monsters_retake_thailands_govern)
Here in the southwestern US, Mexican tar-type heroin remains the most widely available, as casualties escalate in a drug war by Mexico’s President Felipe Calderone against various Mexican cartels. This war is in all-likelihood a response to US-DEA pressure, and while no hard evidence exists that the Mexican government is not sincere about this latest attempt at drug enforcement, it would not surprise me if it eventually turns out to be nothing more than a settling of scores between rival factions.
Myanmar’s brutal regime remains in power, and continues to make headlines with its behavior. Advocates of the US’s “War on Drugs, “and champions of international narcotics control efforts seem oblivious to the causal relationships between drug prohibition, drug trafficking, violence and terrorism, political corruption and human rights abuses, and last but not least, corporate crime. The most sincere and well-intentioned efforts at drug enforcement are useless where dictators publicly attack one drug-lord, while working closely with and profiting from ten or more others. In spite of their superficial enmity, drug enforcement and drug trafficking are entirely dependent on each other.
All the public outcry against the Myanmar junta will not change the ugly realities of opium, heroin, life and death in The Golden Triangle. The media at this time remains strangely silent about the involvement of the illegal drug trade in Myanmar’s suffering.
George Winslow, 1999
Monthly Review Press
New York, NY
DRC Net (Stop the Drug War.org)
1. Winslow sites the following sources here:
Martin Booth, The Triads: The Growing Global Criminal Threat from the Chinese Criminal Societies,
(New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1990) , 15; Lintner, Burma in Revolt, 40, 61-62; Alfred McCoy The Politics
of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (New York, Lawrence Hill, 1991), 266-69
2. George Winslow:
In February 1990-only two months before SLORC refuse to honor the results of a democratic election-the DEA organized a public bonfire of opium that SLORC had supposedly captured….the DEA and Burmese military leaders organized several more opium bonfires, going so far as to arrange visas for foreign journalists who were normally banned from visiting the country At a July 1994 ceremony, journalists, “senior diplomats, military attach[e]s and anti-narcotics officers witnessed the burning of 162 kilos (365 pounds) of heroin and nearly 1,300 kilos (2,680 pounds) of opium. Burmese authorities announce the destruction of 18,080 pounds of opium, 2,880 pounds of heroin, and 7,860 pounds of marijuana in a dozen other bonfires around the country and held forth at length on their commitment to the war against drugs. ‘I would like to proudly declare that the Union of Myanmar [Burma] is always ready to act and always welcomes sincere cooperation in solving mankinds most serious problem,’ said Police Colonel Ngwe Soe Tun, the joint secretary of the committee for drug abuse control….” (Capital Crimes, 64)