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Boston Globe piece
HOOKED ON HEROIN: BURMAS MILITARY GOVERNMENT HAS BECOME A
NARCO-DICTATORSHIP - AND THE WORLD IS PAYING THE PRICE.
By Dennis Bernstein and Leslie Kean
While authorities in most of the world are battling a heroin
epidemic that is claiming a new generation of 13-year-old addicts,
authorities in Burma are quietly supporting the drug trade fueling that
Burma is swiftly becoming a full-fledged narco-dictatorship, with
all aspects of the central government either heavily influenced by or
directly incorporated into the burgeoning drug trade. "Drug traffickers
have become the leading investors in Burma's new market economy and
leading lights in Burma's new political order," says Robert S. Gelbard,
an assistant US secretary of state.
Burma's decision to weave the drug into its permanent economy has
ramifications well beyond its borders. As the flow of heroin out of
Burma increases, the drug is sold more cheaply and, as a result, more
widely in the United States and elsewhere. Growing, too, is the
incidence of AIDS that comes with the habit and its sharing of needles.
The problem, evident on US streets, has reached tragic proportions in
Burma's neighoring countries.
At least 60 percent of the new, pure heroin that finds its way
into the veins and nostrils of thousands of young Americans is coming,
according to State Department officials, compliments of the military
junta that rules Burma. The regime is known as the State Law and Order
Restoration Council, or SLORC, and it rules the country, which is also
known as Myanmar, with an iron fist. Heroin exports from Burma have
more than doubled since the SLORC takeover in 1988, according to the
``Burma is the world's largest producer of opium poppy by far,
particularly since...the SLORC took over the country,'' says Gelbard,
and is ``responsible for the vast majority of heroin on the streets of
the United States.''
Burma's role in supplying drugs to the world has already made
that country the target of a divestment campaign similar to the
anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s. Ten municipalities, one county
and the state of Massachusetts have passed selective purchasing laws
against Burma, saying they will not do business with companies that
`Drug money is so pervasive in the Burmese economy that it taints
legitimate investment,'' says one State Department official. ``Since
1988, some 15 percent of foreign investment in Burma and over half of
that from Singapore has been tied to the family of narco-trafficker Lo
Evidence now shows that foreign corporations investing in Burma
not only prop up the military junta financially, but they allow for the
expansion of the drug trade by providing convenient conduits for money
According to Geopolitical Drugwatch, an international watchdog
group in Paris, the SLORC's national oil and gas company - Myanmar Oil
and Gas Enterprises, or MOGE - has been the main channel for laundering
the revenues from heroin exported under the control of the Burmese
army. MOGE is in partnership with the US oil company Unocal, Total of
France, and a Thai company in building a controversial $1.2 billion gas
pipeline in southern Burma.
Other US companies are dealing directly with the drug traffickers
through a company known as Asia World, which is controlled by the
legendary Han. Under pressure from human rights activists, California's
Wente Vineyards last November canceled its contract with the company.
In December, Northwest Airlines offered bonus miles to travelers
staying at the Trader's Hotel in Rangoon, which is co-owned by Asia
World. Last week,a spokesman for Northwest said that the promotion was
discontinued ``sometime after the first of the year.'' But a
representative answering the hotel's reservation line provided written
confirmation that the policy was still in place.
"That the Burmese economy is based on narco-dollars is quite
obvious," says Dr. Sein Win, Prime Minister of Burma's Government in
exile. ``It is incredible that a US company would promote a business
owned by known drug dealers.''
How, exactly, does Burma's government encourage the drug trade?
Consider how the government recently moved to reinforce Han's control
over drug trade routes. Last year the government awarded his company
the construction rights to a new 102-mile road from Lashio, a city
located in the heart of Burma's opium poppy fields, into China. Asia
World will be allowed to collect tolls on all vehicles passing along
the road. At the same time, Han was awarded a 25-year contract to own
and operate a new port out of Rangoon. Taken together, the two
contracts reinforce Han's control over the country's drug exports - and
his partnership with the military government.
Although it is easy for many Americans to measure the drug
trade's damage in US terms only, the effect of Burma's drug-driven
economy on its neighbors, and on Burma's own civilian population,
Since the military junta took over Burma in 1988, levels of
drug addiction in China have increased more than seven times. The
National Institute on Drug Dependence, based in Beijing, reports that
in 1989 there were about 70,000 addicts in China. Six years later, that
number had grown to more than 500,000. Zun You, a Chinese social
scientist, reports that approximately one in six males from the Kachin
ethnic group, on both sides of the border, are injecting drug users.
And with that comes AIDS. Indeed, the bulk of China's AIDS
cases are clustered along its border with Burma - specifically in three
districts in Yunnan Province, according to Dr. Chris Breyer of Johns
Meanwhile, another neighboring country, India, is also seeing a
sharp increase in drug use and AIDS along its 1,000 mile border with
Burma. Authorities estimate that $1 billion in drugs is transported to
India every year on National Highway 39, which connects Central Burma
with India. Recent reports indicate that two new drug refineries were
opened along the border between Burma and India in order to increase
the supply of heroin to India.
The northeastern Indian state of Manipur, bordering Burma, had
600 addicts when the SLORC came to power in 1988. As of 1996,
according to specialists in the region, there were an estimated 40,000
addicts in the same location. Like China's Yunnan province, Manipur -
on the border with Burma, has the worst AIDS epidemic in India.
Inside Burma itself, where the poppy explosion is most deeply
felt, the twin epidemics of heroin and AIDS are out of control. And
SLORC government policy only feeds the problem, according to interviews
with Burmese students, AIDS specialists, and Burmese pro-democracy
leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
``The government appears to be more interested in stamping out
political activity than drug addiction,'' Suu Kyi said recently from
her home in Rangoon. ``Very few university students on the campus could
get away with engaging in political activities, but they seem to be
able to get away with taking drugs.''
That view is seconded by an exiled Burmese college student now
studying at the University of Wisconsin. ``Our professors told us that
the regime would rather have you become heroin addicts than speak
against the regime. The heroin explosion is happening with the
knowledge, the endorsement, even active encouragement by the state
Jade mines owned by the government in northern Burma give their
work force the option of being paid in hard drugs rather than cash,
according to Benjamin Min, who once worked in the Ministry of Mines.
In that remote region, off limits to Westerners, 90 percent of
addicts are HIV positive; in the rest of Burma, according to the World
Health Organization, the 500,000-plus addicts suffer an HIV infection
rate of 60 to 70 percent. Yet the government refuses to allocate money
for health services, and downplays the incidence of AIDS.
In a dark, windowless room hidden in the back of a dingy tea shop
in the Burmese city of Mandalay, a recent visitor reported this scene:
A junkie shoots heroin into the arms, thighs, and necks of a string of
clients using a single needle. The shooter stops occasionally only to
wipe the needle with a rag or sharpen it on a stone. Investigators
report that up to 200 addicts will use one needle.
Another scene, reported by a visitor to the Thai-Burma border,
captures the consequences of such practices. ``There are regular
funerals now, two or three a day, for AIDS victims, where the bodies
are cremated. This is many more than a year ago. You can hear
firecrackers during the funerals and see clouds of black smoke rising
up from the villages. This is because they burn rubber tires with the
bodies. They believe that it kills the virus and keeps it from
Narcotics officials estimate that this year's opium poppy harvest
from Burma is expected to increase by 10 percent over last year?s. And
the more heroin exported out of Burma, the more that is likely to reach
US streets, schools and neighborhoods. Government figures show that the
volume of heroin imported into the US, and likewise heroin consumption,
has doubled since the mid 1980's.
Taking heroin is now too often considered chic; the drug is purer
than it used to be, it's easy to get, and a hit can be cheaper than a
six pack of beer.
An August 1996 report by the National Narcotics Intelligence
Consumers Committee - a panel made up of representatives of the 12
federal agencies fighting the drug war - describes New York City as
``the largest heroin importation and distribution center in the United
States.'' It says that roughly half of the yearly heroin seizures made
in the States occur in the New York City metropolitan area.
Jane?s Intelligence Review reports that the amount of Burmese
heroin sold in New York City has tripled since 1989. According to a
DEA supervisor in New York, more women have become heroin users in
But the problem is not just New York's. Chicago is suffering its
own deluge of heroin, and in San Francisco, law enforcement officials
are only half-joking when they say that in some areas it is as easy to
buy heroin as cigarettes. In that city, heroin deaths more than doubled
from 1991 to 1994.
In Boston, Asian heroin is driven up from New York. A Drug
Enforcement Administration official in Boston says the agency is
redoubling its efforts against heroin, which is blamed for a recent
rash of overdose deaths. George Festa, special agent in charge of the
DEA New England Field Division, and New England's highest ranking DEA
official, says that 13 and 14-year-olds are selling heroin on the
streets of Boston. Most, he said, have no idea of the drug's Burmese
origins, or the danger it poses.
``I don't think young people realize that they're dealing with
poison,'' Festa says, ``I don't think they realize, going back to
Burma, how this stuff is manufactured, the chemicals that are used
under unsanitary conditions . . . Many times what you're putting in
your nose or into your veins was smuggled into the country in
somebody's internal cavities.''
Dennis Bernstein is an associate editor of Pacific News Service and
co-host of Flashpoints, a daily investigative radio report that airs in
the San Francisco area. Leslie Kean is co-author of "Burma's Revolution
of the Spirit? and director of the Burma Project USA.
This article was written with support from the Fund for Investigative