The poppy harvest is ending along the hillsides of northern Burma. Drug traffickers are working to build stocks of opium and refined heroin. Burma has once again become the world’s leading narcotics supplier and its government must exert more effort to fight this problem.
The war on terrorism has handed the dictators in Burma a problem and an opportunity. The Taliban- run drug trade in Afghanistan has been disrupted by the US intervention and the installation of a new, civilised regime in Kabul. Government forces in Colombia have made major inroads on new opium fields in that country. This has restored Burma as the world’s leading source of illicit opium and heroin. The generals in Rangoon will show clearly in the next few months whether their promises to fight drug trafficking are real or lip service.
Nothing has altered the global traffic in heroin so much as the defeat of the Taliban. But victory over terrorism in Afghanistan has not changed the demand for drugs around the world. After drop in demand and production last year, gangs in Burma and Laos have rushed to fill the gap. The new alliance between the United Wa State Army and the 14K triad has worked to fill new orders. There have been marked increases lately in heroin seizures in Thailand and China.
The danger is that the Golden Triangle will soon return to its prominence of 30 seized more than 12 years ago, as heroin producer for the Taliban.
The Burma-Laos-Thailand border region was the undisputed leader in the traffic in opium and heroin. A highly successful string of anti-opium programmes has wiped out significant cultivation of opium in Thailand. The communist regime in Laos dabbled briefly in drugs after its 1975 accession to power, but has since stressed drug campaigns. Burma has long confused propaganda with action, but opium harvests began to drop at the turn of the century, partly by Rangoon action and partly because of drought.
As Burma production dropped, Afghanistan built its crop during the 1990s to more than 3,000 tonnes of opium a year. The Taliban encouraged opium production. The regime seized all harvests and aided trafficking in heroin. In 2000, the regime banned opium growing, and production dropped to 185 tonnes in 2000. Last year, Burma regained its unenviable lead as the world’s top producer, with 68% of the global opium production.
But the Taliban lifted its ban on opium cultivation after one year. Full-scale production had not resumed by the time the regime was ousted. Sandro Calvani, Asian representative for the United Nations International Drug Control Programme, believes Afghanistan will be a minor factor in the global heroin traffic at least for the short term.
That puts a lot of pressure on Burma. One of the closest watchers of the tense situation is Thirapat Santimetaneedol, deputy secretary of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board. He believes as much as 3,000 tonnes of opium is being harvested right now, triple last year’s crop. Chinese police seized more than 12 tonnes of heroin last year -the result of refining 120 tonnes of opium -and have already complained the Golden Triangle output is at “alarming heights”.
The generals in Rangoon have alternated statements about their drug policy. On one hand, they have complained that lack of aid has made fighting drug traffickers difficult. On the other, they have promised strong efforts to wipe out drugs. And along the way, they directly encourage the international fugitives Wei Hsueh-kang of the United Wa State Army, Lo Hsing-han and Khun Sa.
As the home of the biggest regional methamphetamine trafficker and the top world heroin peddlers, Burma has reached a crossroads. Within weeks, everyone will know how much opium is in the hands of the Burmese traffickers. Only the Rangoon regime can prevent a return to the drug-driven ways of the old Golden Triangle. Heroin abuse by Thais and others, the continuing spread of Aids and the ability of the three-nation region to battle its worst security threat are at stake.
Bangkok Post, 4 Mar 2002