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TIME Mag: Allies But Not Friends

Attn: Burma Newsreaders
Re: Allies But Not Friends (TIME Magazine/International: 05/29/95)

The U.S. wants nothing to do with the generals, but it needs their help to
fight an influx of heroin


>From the air, the Bakyan mountain ridge looks astonishingly like a flashback
to the Vietnam War, right down to the "Huey" helicopters circling anxiously
through the mist and the foxhole-scarred firebases hacked into lush
mountaintop vegetation. Yet appearances are deceiving. This is not Vietnam
but Burma, renamed Myanmar by its military rulers. The driving force behind
this conflict is not cold-war ideology but cold cash and hard drugs.

The fortified bases in Bakyan, captured only a few weeks ago from drug
warlord Khun Sa, are being shown off to foreign journalists by Burma's ruling
military junta in order to boost its antidrug image. The junta, known as the
State Law and Order Restoration Council, hopes the message will be heard in
Washington. That is not an unreasonable expectation: after years of taking
second place to cocaine as America's "drug of choice," heroin is staging a
comeback, and more than 60% of the new supply hitting U.S. streets--purer
than the 1960s version and at a fraction of the price--comes from Burma.

But the U.S. is in a bind. Though it clearly has an interest in stopping
Burmese heroin, Washington wants nothing to do with SLORC and its odious
reputation. The junta jails political opponents, coerces Burmese peasants
into unpaid labor and has kept the country's most popular political figure,
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest since 1989.
"Until Aung San Suu Kyi is released," says a foreign diplomat based in Burma,
"there is not going to be any relationship with SLORC."

Maybe not. But with the threat of a new heroin boom, some U.S. foreign-policy
experts are beginning to question how long Burma can safely be ignored. When
the country gained independence in 1948, its annual output of opium was 30
tons. Now satellite image--based assessments by the U.S. of opium poppy
fields put this year's harvest at 2,500 metric tons. Profits are enormous,
and they've helped make Khun Sa's 15,000-man Mong Tai army better equipped
than Burma's troops. "The longer nothing is done to stop the warlords," says
a foreign diplomat, "the stronger these groups are going to become."

Indeed, SLORC's main motive for striking at Khun Sa is political. Having
smashed resistance from Karen rebels earlier this year, SLORC is eager to
bring other fractious ethnic minorities under its control. But Khun Sa, the
self-styled leader of the Shan State as well as one of the world's major drug
dealers, is an elusive target whose forces often pass through Thai territory.
A few months ago, U.S. drug-enforcement experts were boasting that Khun Sa
was on the run. Several of his key henchmen were arrested in Thailand and are
in the process of being extradited to the U.S. Under heavy American pressure,
Thailand finally sent troops to seal off key infiltration routes to and from
Burma. An intercepted letter from Khun Sa to contacts outside Thailand
pleading for money seemed to indicate that the drug lord was suffering severe
cash-flow problems.

The border turned out to be much more porous than American experts realized.
Burmese intelligence reports that Khun Sa moved groups of 600 and 800 men
through Thailand on chartered tourist buses in March. The routes taken were
along major highways deep inside Thailand. Brigadier General Kyaw Win, the
Burmese regional commander, claims that on one occasion Khun Sa's men made
cash payments of $26,000 to Thai border police to guarantee free passage. The
Burmese were even more outraged when one of Khun Sa's raiding parties shot up
the border town of Tachilek in mid-March. Television newsmen had been tipped
off to the raid and filmed it from the Thai side of the border.

The Burmese assault on Khun Sa's positions in Bakyan came in late April,
several weeks after the Tachilek raid. Heavy mortars and recoilless rifles
had to be carried in by foot on a three-day forced march along treacherous
mountain paths. In the end, most of Khun Sa's men simply melted away. Without
air transport and with logistics lines stretched to the limit, Burmese troops
were unable to give chase. SLORC has been arguing that if the U.S. really
wants to stop Khun Sa's narcotics activities, it is going to have to provide
military hardware and support.

U.S. diplomats disagree. Why, they ask, have the 32 planes and helicopters
supplied by the U.S. for antidrug operations back in the '80s never been used
against the drug lords? And what about the deal SLORC has cut with the Wa
tribal minority allowing it to continue trafficking in opium and heroin in
exchange for recognition of the junta's authority? SLORC insists it is merely
giving the Wa time to find cash crops to replace opium, but experts point out
that the tribe's production has  passed Khun Sa's.

Crop substitution appears to be a sound heroin-fighting strategy, but as a
foreign military attache puts it, "Opium doesn't weigh much, and the buyer
comes to the farmer. If you want to get a bulky crop like potatoes to market,
you need roads." The U.N. has started a modest program to help build roads
and provide alternate crops that peasants can grow. Some observers in Yangon
(formerly Rangoon), the capital, see a recent Japanese grant of $11 million
for roads and similar projects as the opening wedge to normalization of
relations with the rest of the world. But the amount of aid needed to get
quick results is not likely to materialize until SLORC agrees to release Aung
San Suu Kyi. With both sides at an impasse on that issue, the one safe
prediction is that heroin will continue flowing out of Burma.

Copyright 1995 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

Transmitted: 95-05-24 18:40:32 EDT (I5052910)