Drug Policy Digest Part II

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Saturday, August 16, 2003
Los Angeles Times August 10, 2003

Myanmar Tries to Kick Its Habit
By Mitchell Koss

A documentary on the Golden Triangle by Mitchell Koss and Laura Ling will be presented this winter by the National Asian American Telecommunications Assn.

Earlier this year, I traveled to Special Region #2 in northern Myanmar for the opium poppy harvest. But the former guerrilla group that rules the region, the United Wa State Army — sometimes called the largest armed narco-trafficking group in the world — claimed that I was watching one of the last harvests. It has pledged to end opium production by 2005.

If you're wondering why a group whose region's one source of cash is drug production now pledges to abandon it, so did I. The answer seems to be connected to three "isms": capitalism, globalism and tourism. But I get ahead of myself, so let's back up.

Myanmar has achieved notoriety in recent years for repeatedly jailing human rights activist and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, arguably the world's second-favorite oppressed person, after the Dalai Lama. But the isolated country, still referred to by its old name of Burma by the State Department and some human rights groups, is even more notorious in some circles for its opium production as part of the Golden Triangle of drug-producing countries that also includes Thailand and Laos.

In the late 1980s, the government of Myanmar ceded a region where a fifth of the country's opium is produced, dubbed Special Region #2, to the United Wa State Army. The area was granted autonomy in exchange for an end to its decades-long war against the Burmese majority to the south.

To get to the area takes first a small plane from Yangon, Myanmar's capital, and then 10 or 12 hours on dirt roads through half a dozen military checkpoints. The tribal group of ethnic Chinese known as the Wa has a fearsome reputation. As one United Nations official warned me, "They're quite a rough bunch of people."

That's hard to argue with. The army leader who showed my colleagues and me around the area under Wa control told us one evening about how, as a young guerrilla in the early 1970s, he was responsible for going into the villages and taking down the human heads that villages hung each year to ensure a good harvest. But I have to say, the Wa people we met were also fine hosts.

Our army guide took us to a newly opened "casino," a rough barn-like structure where the gamblers ran away when he walked up to a table. He then led us to a shed-like karaoke bar staffed by very young women imported from across the border in China. There, my colleague, encouraged by our enthusiastic host, sang John Lennon's "Imagine."

Our real reason for wanting to see the region, though, was to check out a U.N.-run voluntary opium-reduction program being run in several hundred Special Region #2 villages, funded in large part by the United States. Farmers here traditionally grow opium for cash to buy food because they usually can't grow enough food for a whole year. Everywhere, fields of largely white flowers climbed the steep sides of the green mountains.

Once, in the mountains above Neiva, Colombia, in February 1999, I was caught by insurgents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia while filming poppy fields for a documentary and was lucky to be let go with a warning. But in Special Region #2, the opium harvesters are not camera-shy. Barefoot women, some of them teenagers with babies on their backs, laboriously scored the poppy buds to draw out the opium gum, while others scraped the dried opium off buds that had been cut the day before. But unlike opium or coca farmers I've seen in Colombia and Bolivia — where an illicit crop can bring enough wealth to buy a pickup truck and a satellite dish — the average Golden Triangle family makes only $200 per year from its opium, according to the United Nations.

As I watched the women harvesting opium, I noticed that one woman's baby was covered with scabs; another's was going blind from conjunctivitis — "pinkeye," a common illness here but one that's easily cured with antibiotics. In Special Region #2, it is a common cause of blindness. The Wa have little access to health care or medication, other than opium. Indeed, smoking opium to alleviate malaria, TB or any of the other endemic diseases results in a high rate of addiction in the villages.

The region's extreme poverty is summarized by what passes for progress. The U.N. took us to a couple of model villages where the newest innovations were pit toilets and clothes for children.

On market day in the newly electrified town of Mong Pawk, we watched villagers bring their opium to Chinese women sitting by small scales. The opium buyers were a little more camera-shy and wouldn't answer questions. But the U.N. told us that a kilo of opium in Myanmar fetches only $120, about a fifth of what an ounce of high-quality Vancouver-grown marijuana — "B.C. Bud" — can retail for in New York City.

From the Mong Pawk market, the opium goes global. The distance separating Special Region #2 from Yunnan province, China, across the river, is literally a stone's throw (I made it on my sixth try). According to the U.N., in the early 1990s, globalization gave rise to mainland Chinese organized crime syndicates that challenged the supremacy of the old Hong Kong/Taiwan smuggling groups, just as Shanghai now challenges Hong Kong as a business capital. When mainland Chinese syndicates began turning Myanmar's opium into heroin and smuggling it out, 60% of the drug began crossing China. And some of it began staying there.

About the time heroin began crossing over, so did HIV. In the Mong Pawk market we watched as U.N. workers demonstrated how to put a condom on a model penis (ignored by the passing karaoke girls). Some studies estimate that Myanmar has the second-highest HIV rate in Asia, after Cambodia. So now China, with 1 million to 2 million intravenous heroin users, is facing the possibility of 10 million HIV cases by the end of the decade.

But from the Chinese the Wa have also learned about development. The Wa don't seem to have much in common with the Burmese majority far away in the rest of Myanmar. They don't love the ruling generals. They don't love Suu Kyi. They love China and everything Chinese. In remote areas of Special Region #2 you can see Chinese road builders camped in tents made of plastic sheeting, a sight evocative of images of Chinese building the American railroads 150 years ago. Chinese trucks ply these new — albeit dirt — roads. Chinese merchants operate the small shops in the villages. In one village of dirt streets and thatch-roofed structures, we saw dozens and dozens of large new electric streetlight poles, suitable for the downtown of a city. We were told that the town chief had admired similar light poles in China, and a willing Chinese salesperson had then obliged. And behind the scenes, the Chinese government presumably pressures the Wa leadership to abandon opium, just as Chinese intelligence officers quietly track drug traffickers across the Wa region.

When we got to Pangkhan, the Wa capital, the Wa leaders held a banquet in our honor — involving nine shots of the local liquor — then took us to another shabby casino and several karaoke bars. The next morning, we met the Wa's top leader, Bao Yu-chang, the man who's vowed to eliminate opium by 2005. Opium means poverty, he told us. Then there was an 11 a.m. banquet — with six more rounds of shots and some bamboo worms, which tasted like deep-fried fat. And then the Wa's top leader and my colleague went bowling, because Pangkhan now has an eight-lane bowling alley.

On the journey back out of Special Region #2, we stopped for the night in the city of Mong Lar, in the adjoining Special Region #4. Compared to where we'd just been, Mong Lar looked like a metropolis. It has eliminated opium production. Taking advantage of the nearness to China, Mong Lar has switched from opium to large casinos. Unlike the makeshift Wa casinos, Mong Lar's gambling palaces light up the night sky and draw thousands of Chinese visitors. Around the casinos are streets of brothels staffed by young women from all over China.

Suddenly, it all clicked. We understood why the Wa leaders had taken us to those would-be casinos and karaoke bars — they were showing how they planned to get rid of opium. They want to go into the tourism business.

Perhaps the Wa would try harder to stay in the opium business if it were more lucrative. They seem lately to be embracing methamphetamine production. In that, they are like many residents of California, who risk long federal prison sentences to maintain our state's status as the Golden Triangle of illegal methamphetamine production.

But the U.N. is hoping that eventually Myanmar's leg of the Golden Triangle will become more like Thailand's leg, where opium production is largely a thing of the past. It cautions that this is still a distant goal. But according to its survey released this June, poppy cultivation in Myanmar is down 24% from last year, and down 60% from 1996.

Unfortunately for the world, the global market still offers plenty of other sources of opium. The defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan ended that group's ban on opium production, and now the Afghans have regained the No. 1 spot in world opium production. And according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, most of the heroin used in the U.S. now comes from Colombia and Mexico.

But Myanmar does offer some hope. The State Department used to say that as the world globalizes, crime globalizes first. In the Golden Triangle we might be seeing that, as the world globalizes, sometimes, in some places, some types of crime no longer pay well enough to continue.