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Rebel War Zones Threaten Burma's Fight Against Drug Trade - 2002-12-28

Law enforcement agencies for decades have been fighting drug trafficking from northern Burma - an area wracked by poverty and war. Only recently has there been any progress, namely in reducing opium production. This is due in part to recent peace agreements with ethnic rebels.

Southeast Asia Correspondent Scott Bobb visited the Wa autonomous region, along the Chinese border, and has this report from its capital, Pang Sang.

Drug eradication officials often say that opium and war go hand in hand. Although poverty is a major reason why peasants cultivate opium poppy, the lack of law enforcement in war zones makes it easy for drug lords to manufacture and traffic opium, heroin, and other illegal drugs.

Southeast Asia's so-called Golden Triangle, lying in the remote mountains along northeastern Burma's border with China, Laos and Thailand, is a place where these two scourges thrive.

Britain fought the Opium War for control of the region nearly 200 years ago, but never fully dominated the hill tribes here. After independence in 1948, the Burmese government battled dozens of rebellious groups.

The United Nations' chief drug control officer in Burma, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, says drug trafficking flourished because of the rebellions.

"With the culture of warfare in the region, the opium's profits, basically, were there to fuel the war since centuries," he said.

One of the most prominent rebel groups were the Wa, a people with ethnic ties to southwestern China's Yunnan province. For 40 years, 20,000 soldiers of the Wa State Army fought the Burmese government, and Wa leaders emerged as major drug traffickers in the region.

In 1989, the Wa agreed to stop fighting, in exchange for autonomy from Rangoon. This brought peace and some development to the region.

Drug experts in Burma say, some Wa elements still wage war, and traffic drugs along the border, primarily with Thailand. But many have joined in battling the drug problem.

"Our objective and commitment is, by 2005, the Wa Region will be drug free," said Deputy Commander Bu Loi Kham, a top leader in the Wa State Army.

The head of the U.N. drug project in the Wa area, Xavier Bouan, says opium eradication is essential, but it must be handled right, or it will cause other big problems.

"One is, what's going to happen to the farmers when they will have to abandon, voluntarily or by force, opium poppy cultivation? Secondly, is how the Wa State is going to substitute those taxes," he said.

Wa leader Bu Loi Kham acknowledges that his state is dependent financially on taxes from farmers' crops, including opium. "We have taxes on agriculture, but the percentage is becoming less and less," he said.

But he says revenues now increasingly are coming from new industries, like mining, livestock breeding and commerce.

The Wa are working with the Burmese government and the United Nations to wean farmers from opium. They are introducing substitute crops, fertilizer and irrigation schemes.

Roads are also being improved, which is opening up the region and fostering trade.

Drug experts say, as a result, opium production in the Wa area has been reduced by nearly one-third in the past year.

Another by-product of the growing cooperation between the Wa and the Burmese government has been the arrival of teachers, nurses, engineers and agricultural experts from government ministries to work on Wa projects.

Foreign Minister Win Aung says peace has brought trust. "Now, after 10 years of coming closely and existing together, we have a better understanding of each other," he said. "These Wa people, they will do what they have promised to us. And we are cooperating with them, and educating them."

There have been setbacks. As part of the drive to increase food production, the Wa have moved some villages in the less fertile, high mountains to the richer, valley land. These sudden relocations caused hardships. Many villagers died from malnutrition and low-land diseases like malaria and fever. The Wa say they will continue the relocation program, but with more planning and support.

In addition, the Burmese government is still fighting several groups along the Thai border. Trafficking there, particularly of amphetamines, is a growing concern. Last May, tensions along the border, that involved elements of the Wa and rival Shan groups, erupted into cross-border shelling. The border was closed for five months.

The lingering suspicions are hindering cooperation between Burma and Thailand on drug control. But cooperation with China is growing.

The head of Burma's drug control agency, Colonel Hkam Aung, says the peace accord has helped open up the Wa region, and has brought greater contact with the outside world. "The ethnic groups themselves realize, they've been left behind from the mainstream of the country," he said. "And they want to catch up. So, they are very positive, when the government goes in to help them, and they are very receptive."

Drug officials are buoyed by successes in the Wa region, and want to expand the U.N.-supported drug program to other parts of northern Burma.

They say increased cooperation and development will bolster peace and stability, which, ultimately, are the best antidotes to drugs and war.

Part two of a three-part VOA series