Pubdate: Sun, 10 May 1998
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Contact:  Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, Rangoon

BURMESE JUNTA FORCES FARMERS TO GROW OPIUM

THE military government of Burma, the world's biggest producer of opium,
has driven thousands of villagers from their homes in a programme to
transform rice fields into poppy plantations, despite receiving millions of
pounds a year from the United Nations to combat drugs.

An investigation by The Sunday Times and human rights groups has
established that the junta is secretly expanding the number of opium farms
in designated "drug-control areas".

The regime has used video footage which appears to show poppy fields being
destroyed to support applications for UN aid. But interviews with farmers,
soldiers and former civil servants have confirmed that the military
presides over a huge network of opium-producing villages in regions
officially said to be drug-free.

Last January 5,000 people were evicted from one village alone - Ngape, in
the Arakan Yoma mountain range in central Burma. The government claimed
they had been ordered out for refusing to destroy poppy crops. However, a
farmer who sought refuge on Burma's border with India said: "We had never
grown opium before. The soldiers said we had to plant poppies or lose our
land."

Opium farmers were brought in from other parts of the country, according to
a 34-year-old woman from Ngape who left her home and possessions behind.
"This was not a drug clearance scheme - the army hijacked our land to grow
drugs," she said.

Aid workers admit that restrictions on their movements render them
powerless to make checks. "There is no independent monitoring," said a
source at the UN drug control programme, which will spend 4m in Burma in
the next year.

Under the totalitarian rule of the State Peace and Development Council,
Burma has become a narco-dictatorship. According to officials in
Washington, Burma produces 250 tonnes of opium a year, more than twice as
much as Afghanistan, the second-largest manufacturer. Robin Cook, the
foreign secretary, says in a forthcoming report by the South Asian
Information Network, a British human rights group: "The failure of the
regime to address this issue, the production of heroin - indeed, their
apparent willingness to abet and profit from the drug trade - deserves the
strongest condemnation."

The victims of Burma's burgeoning narco-economy can be seen in bamboo huts
in many outlying areas, where addiction to opium is widespread. Pang Sak,
in the northern Kachin state, has become known as the "village of the
widows" following hundreds of deaths from overdoses. Doctors claim there
are "drug addicts in every house here". Among those who died after being
forced by the military to cultivate opium poppies instead of rice was the
father of Aung Than, a seven-year-old boy who now uses an opium pipe
himself. "The smoke makes my hunger go away," he said.

Next door, the women of the Nhkum family are mourning three sons, aged 13,
17 and 21, all of whom died from overdoses of heroin.

The poppies are everywhere. In Chin state, northwestern Burma, which the
government has proclaimed free from opium production, retired police
officers said poppy fields were plentiful. The army has set aside more than
15 acres of land around some villages to grow the crop.

Each grower is obliged to pay an annual licence fee of about 25 to the
Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control, a government department funded by
the UN, and 13 to the police. Every cultivated acre yields 6kg of opium
paste, which is sold for 220. Ten villages can yield enough opium to
produce 80kg of pure heroin in refineries - worth 15m on Britain's streets.

Farmers and former couriers say six new refineries to turn raw opium into
heroin have sprung up along the Chindwin river - all reportedly guarded by
Burmese army battalions. One former army officer said his superior had
recently taken 35kg of heroin in his car and sold it for 500,000 on the
Indian frontier.

Myo Min, a border trader, told Images Asia, a human rights group based in
Thailand, that he had seen many military officials transporting drugs.
"Army officers and soldiers participate in the drug trade. I saw
high-ranking military personnel buying and carrying opium and heroin. I
have never seen them arrested."

Other traders and drivers on the border of Burma and India said they had
been issued with military passes signed by Khin Nyunt, one of the most
powerful men in the junta. On the Thai-Burma border, a checkpoint guard in
eastern Shan state said he had stopped a trailer loaded with heroin and had
been presented with a pass signed by Khin Nyunt. He telephoned the
general's office in Rangoon and was told to let the trailer pass as the
drugs were being transported to a destruction centre. The load was never
seen again.

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