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Southeast Asia

 

( 11 visitor comments )

 

Southeast Asia

 

Burma's calamity exports - heroin, HIV, slaves, crime

20 September 2005

         In: Arms and investment
          Out: Drugs, slaves, heroin, refugees & AIDS


Part One (China & India):
 
It is probably ironic that whilst Asian leaders are these days raising polite objections to the Burmese junta’s dire impact on its own nation, there is little appreciation for the Pandora’s Box of calamities it is quietly unleashing upon their own.
 
After Western governments shut out Burma a decade or so ago, its generals developed a patchwork of military, diplomatic and trade ties across Asia - most vitally with China, with which Burma shares a 2,185 kilometer border. But there has been a price for supporting a regime with one of the world’s longest narcotics rap-sheets, and one of the world’s worst human rights records - and many of Burma’s Asian backers are now suffering the mounting discomfort of “blowback”. No nation has been more affected than China itself.
 
In the last decade and a half, whilst there has been significant Western disengagement from Burma, China has plied its regime with military equipment and weaponry worth $3.5 billion, according to Professor Des Ball at Australia’s Strategic Defence Studies Centre, in a 2004 interview; in the economic realm, Chinese investment in northern Burma has reached such proportions that the word “takeover” is often used. But pouring across the border in the other direction have been vast quantities of Golden Triangle opium, heroin and “amphetamine-type stimulants” - a host of secondary ills, such as AIDS, refugees, people-trafficking, crime-waves and official corruption, riding on their backs.
 
Jia Chunwang, Chairman of China’s National Narcotics Control Commission, has stated that China’s national drug crisis began in the 1980s following “particularly the aggravated drug manufacturing problem in the Golden Triangle which borders southwest China” - and that 80 percent of China’s drug imports came from the Golden Triangle. (The Burmese sector leads the way in Triangle drug production.) Luo Feng, China’s vice minister of Public Security, said last year that China’s drug problem cost the economy billions of dollars a year. More of China’s estimated one million-plus addicts live in Yunnan province, which borders Burma, than in any other. In 2003, 70 percent of China’s drug seizures were in Yunnan.
 
But Burma’s impact on China only begins with drugs: Asian epidemiologists now speak of the “dual epidemics” of heroin and HIV. China’s nationwide epidemic of the latter began in the areas adjoining Burma, and today, its demographics follow Burmese drug routes - right up to China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang.
 
The potential damage of China’s HIV epidemic may have been under-appreciated. A leaked 2002 UN report stated: “China is on the verge of a catastrophe that could result in unimaginable human suffering, economic loss and social devastation.”
 
Last year, a study by the US-based Rand Corporation found that the epidemic - which affects between one and six million people, with a possible “doubling time” of only 30 months - was a “wild card” which had the potential to cut China’s per capita growth rate by anything between .05 and 5 percent over the next two decades.
 
Also piggybacking on the explosion of Burmese drugs, according to a 2003 report by China’s Xinhua News Agency, is a crime wave: ”80 percent of male addicts steal, swindle or rob,” the report stated, “while 80 percent of female addicts are engaged in prostitution activities.”
 
Official corruption, another bedfellow of Burmese narcotics, is rife in western China, where the People’s Liberation Army has been bought off by Burmese traffickers, according to a US Drug Enforcement Administration source in Thailand.
 
One has only to gaze upon the thousands of new Chinese-built apartment blocks which line the streets of Mandalay and Rangoon – or the Chinese-funded hydropower plant recently completed near the city of Pyinmana, which will supply one-third of Burma’s power needs - to sense China’s mounting economic engagement with Burma.
 
“And there doesn’t seem to be any indication whatsoever that they’re going to let up on that,” says China-watcher Dr Stephen Frost, at the Southeast Asia Research Centre in Hong Kong’s City University. “That they’re going to stop promoting Burma as a good investment location.”


Other nations are thinking the same way. Last November, following the warm welcome given in India to Burma’s leader, “Senior General” Than Shwe, a Confederation of Indian Industry spokesman announced that Indian IT firms would set up in Burma. In January, India announced it would buy Burma’s natural gas, and co-finance a pipeline through Bangladesh to bring it in.
 
In the wake of China’s alarming success in courting the generals, diplomatic overtures have also multiplied. A decade ago, fearing an attempt to “encircle” it with a Chinese satellite on its eastern flank, India dropped its support for Burma’s democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and developed a new policy it termed “strategic engagement”.
 
Australian Burma analyst Andrew Selth wrote in the Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter last year that India has subsequently supplied Burma with howitzers, and most likely mortar and artillery ammunition, small arms and advanced communications equipment.
 
Some Indian analysts – as yet no policymakers – have come to believe that propping up Burma’s military junta is a march of folly. The reasons are as varied as Burma’s “calamity exports”:
 
India’s seven northeastern states, which neighbor Burma, account for three percent of the national population, but thirty percent of its intravenous drug users. One of those regions, Manipur, has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection in India – due to its “geographical nearness to Burma”, according to the international AIDS charity Avert. In 2000, an Asian Development Bank study of Manipur and neighboring Nagaland found that the HIV sub-types there were the same as those found in Burma.
 
In 2002, Dr Narendra Singh of the Jawaharal Nehru Memorial Hospital at Imphal famously told Time magazine: “Manipur is now doomed.”
 
The new spirit of engagement has resulted in attacks by joint Indian-Burmese operations on ethnic Naga rebel groups in Burma. These have resulted in thousands of civilian refugees fleeing into India. Perhaps still more disconcertingly for India, a 2002 report by the US Library of Congress - A Global Overview of Narcotics-funded Terrorist and Other Extreme Groups - stated that Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger army “reportedly has close ties to drug-trafficking networks in Burma”.


Geographically the largest nation on the Southeast Asian mainland, Burma’s strategic value is hard to understate. The nation of 47 million is positioned between the two regional superpowers of China and India, and forms the age-old trade conduit between South and Southeast Asia. Rich in resources - oil, gas, timber, hydropower, zinc, copper, coal, precious stones – Burma’s economic potential is also vast. Studies made after World War Two projected that the then-emerging democracy would be an Asian powerhouse in the decades to come.
 
Instead, after 25 years of military dictatorship, in 1987 Burma joined Afghanistan, Rwanda and Bangladesh on the UN’s “least developed country” list. Regionally, Burma is now best-known for an economy in a death spiral, its horrendous human rights record, and its prolific exports of drugs, crime and refugees.
 
A US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) source in Thailand told the Review that the Burmese junta is “heavily involved” in running the drug trade – a claim which is supported by numerous other sources.
 
Speaking of the synergy between Burmese drugs and their attendant plagues, Debbie Stothard, from the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, a Bangkok-based human rights group, told the Review:
 
“More Indian soldiers have died as a result of HIV infection in the northeast than from bullets from rebels. Where there’s HIV there are drugs - and where there are drugs there is trans-national crime: that’s a third thing. For example, the United Wa State Army [an armed ethnic group supported by the Burmese junta] is the region’s largest conduit of illegal arms.”
 
Swedish journalist and author Bertil Lintner, who has lived in Asia for 30 years, writing on Burma and the region, believes Burma’s drug, refugee and disease outflows have had “an enormous impact” on the region.
 
However this, Lintner notes, is rarely reflected in the public utterances of regional leaders. “China’s role is especially dubious,” he says. “On the one hand, it gets AIDS and drugs from Burma, but on the other it’s an important trade partner and strategic ally. So Beijing says nothing about AIDS and drugs coming from there. Chinese newspapers usually say ‘the other country’ or ‘from across the southern border’, rather than spelling it out.”
 
An assessment prepared for the US Defense Department by consultants Booz Allen Hamilton, and leaked in January, outlines an explanation for China’s pro-junta policy. Titled Energy Futures in Asia, the assessment describes the building up of a string of naval bases, container ports, listening posts, railway lines and diplomatic links stretching from southern China to the Persian Gulf, to secure China’s Middle Eastern oil supplies – especially against the event of future conflict with Taiwan or Japan. This – China’s String of Pearls strategy - is part of its long-term strategic bid to offset US power.
 
“China’s access to the rest of the world,” US energy analyst Kevin Skislock told the Review, “comes down to three countries which offer it critical energy security landbridges. To its west, Kazakhstan and Pakistan. To the south it’s Burma. So Burma will become very important in China’s geopolitical framework.”
 
Already there have been discussions about an oil pipeline across Burma from southern China, to give China access to the Indian Ocean. This would eliminate at a stroke China’s precarious reliance on the Strait of Malacca energy route.
 
For Chinese planners, energy security would seem to be a tough imperative to trump, even when set against epidemics of drugs, disease and crime, and their resulting economic harm. Speaking of China’s Burmese drug plague, Raphael Perl, a senior drug policy analyst with the US Congress, told the Review, “I don’t think it comes to their attention at senior levels. They don’t feel it’s a priority.”
 
Neither do the human rights of the Burmese people, an estimated one million of whom have been driven from their homes at gunpoint by the army, appear to feature in Chinese planning.
 
“Where is the point of leverage that Western civil society concerned about Burma can exert on China?” asks Stephen Frost, from Hong Kong’s Southeast Asia Research Centre. “It’s just not there. I’ve been in audiences in the mainland where people put up a PowerPoint slide of Burma’s most famous detained human rights activist, and not a person in the audience could identify her. There’s just not really any momentum, even in fairly well-educated circles in China, on Aung San Suu Kyi and her role in Burma. It doesn’t register.”
 
Whilst China’s “amoral” foreign policy has brought it investment rewards in Burma, and may yet bring it strategic ones, the US has taken the moral high ground by imposing financial, trade and investment sanctions.
 
But even among those sympathetic to US intentions, the view is emerging that sanctions have played into the hands of the West’s Asian competitors.
 
In June, 2003, Kyaw Win, Burma's ambassador to Britain, said: “There is no evidence that we are worried about sanctions... We have the two largest countries of the world on either side who are happily trading and exchanging all kinds of technical, transportation, security measures [with Burma].”
 
On a subject as convoluted as Burma and its relations with Asia, arguments sometimes get overly pared down. For example China and India presently have good relations, and, as a US State Department official told the Review: “It would be “a simplistic analysis to say that Burma is drifting into China’s embrace. Burma has relations with other countries.” Historically, the Burmese junta is deeply suspicious of China, which supported the now-defunct Communist Party of Burma’s armed insurgency till the 1980s.
 
And in the end, of course, China’s “amoral” pragmatism could cut two ways. Bertil Lintner says:
 
“It's my impression from talking to Chinese government officials that they are pragmatic enough to realise that Suu Kyi may be Burma's next leader, and, therefore, they are prepared to deal with her. Burma is what's important to China, not necessarily who's in power. Of course they'd prefer a non-democratic military government, but if another government comes to power, they would go out of their way to establish good relations with that government as well.”
 
Dr Stephen Frost even wonders if the Chinese aren’t building up goodwill in anticipation of a post-junta Burma.
 
But for now, there is no indication that the junta wishes to share power with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which won 82 percent of seats in the 1990 election, or anyone else.
 
The dead hand of the armed forces has been on the Burmese economy continuously since 1962, only 17 years - all of them strife-torn - after the surrender of Japan. In a sense, the Burmese economy has not yet recovered from World War Two.
 
David Arnott, Secretary of the Burma Peace Foundation and Librarian of the Online Burma/Myanmar Library, says:
 
“The economic future of South Asia, Southeast Asia and Western China depends to a large degree on the integration of their economies. A major obstacle to such integration is that the geographical center of this potential development zone is occupied by Burma, with its economically incompetent leaders presiding over the collapse of the economy.”
 
But the recent ASEAN chairmanship flap notwithstanding, the signs are few that China, India and the Southeast Asian nations are putting concerns over damage to their social fabrics and longer-term economies ahead of the immediate, pragmatic needs to trade, invest, and keep the regional peace.
 
The sheer intransigence of the Burmese generals – their resistance to both democratic reform and economic rationality – suggests that Southeast Asia’s black sheep will continue to live in interesting times.


Part Two (Southeast Asia):
 
Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council - twelve generals who are sometimes guided in policy matters by astrologers - has never been the easiest body for outsiders to engage with, or even comprehend.
 
Since 1990, when the junta canceled the result of its first elections in 30 years, and jailed many of the new parliamentarians, Burma has been progressively shut out by the West. But regional nations stepped into the breach: first China, followed by an India made anxious by Chinese trade, investment and strategic links. Similarly motivated, in 1997 the Association of South-East Asian Nations brought Burma into the fold. ASEAN membership, some bloc members also hoped, would entice Burma toward an open system of government and a market economy.
 
Eight years on, all those hopes are in tatters. Chinese investment and arms supplies are snowballing; Burma’s economy has deteriorated so badly the junta has turned to fabricating some economic data (this year claiming the world’s highest economic growth rate, of 12.7 percent); and international attempts are being made to bring the generals to account at The Hague for crimes against humanity, or possibly genocide.
 
Asda Jayanama, Thailand’s Ambassador to the UN from 1996 to 2001, says: “Some of the more...I won’t say simple-minded...but some of the more optimistic members of ASEAN hoped that by bringing Burma in we would influence them in a positive way - bring them to the ASEAN norms, make them less suspicious of outsiders.
 
“But it has not happened. We are hostage to Burmese policy. The tail wags the dog. They’ve got everything they want - they’ve got the ASEAN political shield from western attack. But what do we get?”
 
Bertil Lintner believes the regional bloc’s failure to influence Burma stems from “ASEAN’s weird policy of ‘non-interference’ in the ‘internal affairs’ of individual member countries. It was that policy that for decades prevented a solution to the East Timor crisis,” Lintner says. “ASEAN is not the EU. It’s basically toothless.”

 
In 2000, in the wake of mounting western trade sanctions, ASEAN overtook the European Union as Burma’s major foreign investment bloc. Burma’s Central Statistical Organization states that, by 2002, 48 percent ($2.5 billion) of Burma’s bilateral trade was with ASEAN countries. (All economic data from Burma is suspect, and is usually seen as “indicative” rather than definitive.)
 
On the political front, no ASEAN country has backed the Burmese regime so staunchly as its contiguous neighbor, Thailand - officially Burma’s third-largest foreign investor, at $1,341 million in approvals, cumulative to 2004.
 
As recently as 2001, Burma’s government announced contingency plans to call up 99,000 war veterans, to defend the nation in the event of attack by an unnamed neighbor “under the influence of a foreign power”. The neighbor was Thailand, perhaps Southeast Asia’s staunchest US ally.
 
But in the same year Thailand’s new Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, a business-oriented pragmatist with a Thai nose for conciliation, began friendly overtures to the junta. Four years on, an era of recriminations and Thai-Burma border clashes is giving way to what Thaksin – adopting the ASEAN terminology - calls “constructive engagement”.
 
At first, Thaksin sometimes nudged the Burmese regime toward democratisation, though to no effect. More recently realpolitik has held sway. Last December, after meeting junta members in Rangoon, the Thai Prime Minister ventured that the house arrest of Burma’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was “reasonable enough and convincing” - adding that releasing her could lead to Burma “being torn apart”.
 
Thailand, however, is experiencing some instability of its own from the policies of the Burmese leadership. Thaksin is now unwilling host to 140,000 Burmese refugees, fleeing war, and government-sponsored rape and murder, who live in camps along the Burma border. There are an estimated one million Burmese “illegals” inside Thailand, according to a 2004 Human Rights Watch report.
 
But predictably it is Burmese drugs that are having the biggest impact. According to the UN’s 2004 World Drug Report, 90 percent of Thailand’s 2.65 million drug-takers use methamphetamine (known to Thais as as ya-ba: literally “crazy medicine”), the highest rate of use in the world. Most of Thailand’s ya-ba, perhaps 800 million pills a year – or 13 for every person in Thailand - is trafficked in from Burma.
 
Some studies put addiction rates among male students in Thailand’s northern provinces, neighboring Burma, as high as 43 percent.
 
In the 1980s, the injection of readily available Burmese heroin kicked off Thailand’s now-famous AIDS epidemic.
 
Thai government statements on the drug menace, which are an almost daily event, rarely mention Burma’s role.
 
Following the drug routes, according to relief workers in Thailand, are Burmese people-traffickers, to whom – a few high-profile arrests notwithstanding - the Burmese authorities tend to turn a blind eye. Human traffickers use centres in Thailand, such as Chiang Mai in the north, as relay points. Although most Burmese are trafficked voluntarily, an estimated twenty to thirty percent - notably girls - are tricked, taken forcibly or sold by their parents. From Thailand they are then shipped all over Asia in response to “orders” from brothels, sweatshops and “entertainment” businesses. “Male immigrants are sold for $125 each and females to the entertainment businesses for $250-375 each”, claimed a recent report in the Shan Herald. (Burma’s ethnic Shan people are frequent targets of people-traffickers.) On May 20, authorities discovered 14 Burmese victims locked in a house in the Thailand’s Suphanburi province.
 
China, India and Thailand are the countries worst affected by Burma’s drug exports, and the secondary plagues which travel with them. But Malaysia – the most eager proponent of Burma’s 1997 entry into ASEAN - also knows of the contradictions inherent in supporting the Burmese generals.
 
At a cumulative $661 million in approvals, Malaysia is officially Burma’s fourth-largest foreign investor. In a customary nod to the junta on June 15, it arrested 68 Burmese democracy protestors in Kuala Lumpur for “assembling without authorisation”. The 68 have been jailed - some are reportedly being brutally beaten - pending trial in December.
 
Little such consideration is shown in return. Two days before the Kuala Lumpur arrests, the World Health Organization announced that Malaysia is now “in the beginning stages” of an HIV epidemic – largely thanks to injectable heroin, most of which arrives from Burma’s Golden Triangle region.
 
Neither has clean, drug-averse Singapore escaped the uneasy paradoxes of doing business with one of the world’s principal narco-states.
 
In Burma’s 2004 official figures (which much-understate China’s role), Singapore was its major foreign investor. According to the figures, 20% of Burma’s foreign investment approvals were from Singapore – or about $1.5 billion cumulative. (Typically, about one-third of this would reach investment stage.) In May, a Singapore firm won a $10 million contract to expand Rangoon International Airport.
 
If the many claims documented by Australian analyst Andrew Selth in Jane’s Intelligence Review are accurate, the island nation has also been Burma’s leading arms supplier within ASEAN – such arrangements going back to 1988, when Singapore’s timely assistance apparently helped the regime stave off Aung San Suu Kyi’s rising democracy movement. Through the 1990s, such reported sales included mortars and ammunition, 84mm rockets, grenade-launchers, anti-tank guns, a surface-to-air missile system, and an arms factory – all either made by Singapore companies or quietly shipped through Singapore from third countries.
 
A spokesman for the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented: “The Jane’s report is speculative in nature. Our views of Myanmar are well-known. We honour our international obligations and enforce all UN arms embargoes.”
 
In 1997, US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Robert Gelbard, stated: “Since 1988, over half of [Burmese investments in] Singapore have been tied to the family of narco-trafficker Lo Hsing Han.”
 
Due to the junta’s mismanagement of the Burmese economy, in recent times Singaporean investment – along with foreign investment overall – is thought to have fallen considerably.
 
Singapore is also a significant export destination for Burmese drugs, as are Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam - which in 2001 sold the junta $2 million in 82mm mortar ammunition. But the Philippines ($147 million in cumulative investment approvals in Burma to 2004) has a special problem. According to a 2002 US Congressional Library research report, there has been a linkup between its Abu Sayyaf terrorist group and Golden Triangle narco-traffickers.
 
The drug trade accounts for 10 to 15 percent of Burma’s GDP, according to the International Narcotics Control Board in Vienna. Recent UN and US drug surveys have found that Burmese opium production is falling – a conclusion disputed by numerous experts in the region.
 
More contentious still is whether Burma’s Senior General Than Shwe and his junta cohorts tolerate, or even involve themselves in, the trade.
 
Raphael Perl, a senior drug policy analyst with the US Congress, told the Review, “No Burmese army officer over the rank of full colonel has ever been prosecuted for drug-related activities. I think that tells you a lot.”
 
“It’s the Burmese government,” said a worker with the Free Burma Rangers, a Christian group which ferries medical and education supplies throughout eastern Burma. “When the Army operates in a certain part of [Burma’s] Shan State, they order villagers to grow opium, and then take a cut. This is based on many, many interviews with villagers. Orders come from battalion commander level - that’s a lieutenant-colonel.
 
“The drugs go to Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia - some to the West. Asia’s engagement with Burma is a big mistake,” the worker added. “It will hurt those leaders - if only their reputations.”
 
“The heroin trucks come through here in the middle of the night, escorted by the Army,” claimed a resident of Hsipaw in northern Burma, in an April interview with the Review. “You can see soldiers guarding the opium fields at Nam Hsan, 49 miles from here,” a second Hsipaw resident stated.
 
Whilst the US State Department’s 2005 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report said, “There is no reliable evidence that senior officials in the Burmese Government are directly involved in the drug trade”, a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) source in Thailand told the Review: “We know the junta are in the drug trade up to their eyeballs.”
 
Whilst drugs are the most famous of Burma’s calamity exports, their impact is gradual, and unspectacular day-to-day – drawing sober analyses rather than screaming headlines. A headline-grabbing regional crisis would likely only be triggered by a Burmese “export” capable of causing immense damage quickly.
 
Avian flu would seem to fit the bill. Burma is officially free of the disease, but in Rangoon, a senior Burmese journalist with contacts in the health ministry told the Review that Burma suffered numerous outbreaks of avian flu throughout 2004 - the last one in December. Ministry officials, the journalist said, have been ordered to deny this publicly.
 
“Here in Rangoon,” the journalist said, “the outbreaks were mostly in the military-run poultry farms, but some private ones too.”
 
Needless to say, the spread of avian flu out of Burma could have far-reaching consequences. Epidemics in Southeast Asia in 2003-4 led to the deaths of 100 million chickens, and an estimated $8-12 billion in economic losses. In May, a World Health Organization bulletin warned that further avian flu outbreaks “could ignite a global pandemic capable of killing millions of people around the world”.
 
In March, thousands of chickens died of a mystery ailment in several parts of Burma. The government informed the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization that avian flu was not involved. “There have been some deaths due to the extreme heat,” an official told the media.
 
Exports of drugs, “human traffic” and disease are not the only Burmese activities to have threatened regional prosperity and security. In 2001, plans were announced for a ten megawatt nuclear reactor for “medical” purposes, to be built on Burmese soil by Russia. Significant numbers of Burmese personnel are presently in Russia receiving nuclear technical training, according to numerous sources in Rangoon, and Pyin-Oo-Lwin in Burma’s north, where many of the personnel have been drawn from a military technical institute.
 
Enquiries by the Review in Pyin-Oo-Lwin revealed that 16 Russians - claiming to be language teachers, though some locals believe them to be nuclear technicians - presently work at the institute. The reactor’s proposed location is the subject of conflicting reports.
 
Regional commentators – though few governments - have expressed concern about a Burmese nuclear reactor, given the regime’s chronic internal power struggles, the nation’s several ethnic insurgencies, and Burma’s history of earthquakes.
 
A spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency told the Review, “Since 1992 there's been a call to all IAEA member states to provide information as soon as a decision to build a reactor is made... The IAEA is aware of media reports about Myanmar's intention to build a research reactor in cooperation with Russia. However, Myanmar, which is a member of the IAEA, has not yet officially notified the Agency of this intention.”
 
Whilst the planned nuclear liaison with Russia has raised some eyebrows, none of Burma’s new “friends” has caused so much regional unease as North Korea. Australian Burma analyst Andrew Selth, regarded as the leading expert on Burma’s military, last year documented this unusual relationship in his book, Burma’s North Korean Gambit. Selth (who now works for Australia’s intelligence services, and can no longer speak to the media) itemizes arms purchases from the Pyongyang regime which include 20 million rounds of AK47 ammunition and at least a dozen 130mm field guns, as well as discussions over the purchase - subsequently aborted - of one or two small submarines. He also cites unconfirmed talks on the purchase by Burma of a number of Scud-type short range ballistic missiles which, with their 500-kilometer range, would be able to reach Bangkok.
 
Selth estimates that Burma spends 35-45 percent of its national budget on its military - proportionally the highest in the Asia-Pacific. He believes its possible interest in buying advanced weapons systems from North Korea (and its purchase of MIG-29 interceptors from Russia in 2001) are aimed at dissuading the US or an international coalition from a military intervention - the possibility of which is the subject of regular veiled warnings in Burma’s official media.
 
(Whilst a US invasion is a popular scenario among ordinary Burmese, there are presently no plans in Washington to apply military pressure on the junta.)
 
Given the frequency of visits by North Korean freighters to Rangoon, Selth notes, North Korea is suspected of supplying other armaments to Burma. Some reports claim the consignments are sometimes paid for in Burmese heroin.
 
In 2003, the North Korean freighter Pong Su was interdicted near the southern Australian coast, carrying 125 kilograms of heroin. Some reports have claimed the heroin was packaged to resemble Burmese product, but actually derived from elsewhere. However Special Agent Rebecca Goddard of the Australian Federal Police, one of the agencies which interdicted the Pong Su, told the Review that the North Korean consignment was marked “Double U O Globe” brand, which derives from the Golden Triangle.
 
In a September 2003 Washington Post OpEd piece, Senator Richard Lugar, Chairman of the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, described the emerging links between the “two pariah states” of North Korea and Burma as “the seeds of a major threat to Asian security and stability”.


As the ASEAN “family” inches its way towards an era of democratization, co-operation and deregulation, Burma - with its all-powerful central government, and its copious regional exports of drugs, disease and refugees - increasingly resembles a difficult houseguest.
 
The recent long paralysis within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in the face of the rogue nation’s scheduled mid-2006 chairmanship, may have its source in the regional bloc’s decades-old founding documents. These cite as ASEAN’s objectives “regional peace and stability...and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter” – but also “non-interference in the internal affairs of one another”. Through the muted agonies of this year’s chairmanship flap, Burma - from which ASEAN nations obtain trading profits and diplomatic embarrassment in roughly equal measure – roused these core contradictions from dormancy to painful life.
 
Traditionally, the more developed, older ASEAN nations hold divergent views from ASEAN’s newer members on democracy, transparency and human rights. The former (Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines) are sometimes anxious about Burma’s depredations, and the latter (Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam) sympathetic to its authoritarian government, which bears some similarities to their own. But throughout ASEAN as a whole, rewards from engagement with Burma – trade, investment, offsetting China, and keeping the peace with a sensitive and erratic neighbor – have ensured that there has been little public criticism. Now that is beginning to change, with even the “new” ASEAN nations conspicuously failing to defend Burma in the debate which ultimately deprived it of the chairmanship.
 
This is unlikely to be the result of a belated attack of conscience. A view is taking shape in ASEAN that, where Burma is concerned, member nations may have been acting against their own interests. One regional activist for Burmese democracy claims that “even the newer ASEAN members have a lot to lose” from further supporting the Burmese military regime. “Cambodia wants US backing to become a full member of the World Trade Organization, Laos wants a normalized trading relationship with the US, and Vietnam’s relationship with the US is undergoing huge changes,” the activist says. “It is doubtful that Vietnam would want to put that on the line for Burma.”
 
Whilst public criticism is still the exception rather than the rule, privately, Bertil Lintner says, many Asian policymakers voice complaints about the Burmese regime - “including some of Burma's closest allies among the ASEAN countries”.
 
In Thailand, that thinking was given some oxygen late last year by an article in The Irrawaddy magazine, produced in Chiang Mai largely by Burmese exiles. The article, by journalist Bruce Hawke, described Thailand’s 1995 deal to buy gas from Burma. Proceeds from the deal are projected to be $250 million this year - however since 2002 they appear to have helped finance an arms-buying spree by Burma, Thailand’s traditional enemy. This – to complete a somewhat surreal circle - has caused much alarm in Thai government circles.


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