HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html U.S. Troops In Military Exercises Near China's Border
Pubdate: Sun, 20 May 2001
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2001 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Uli Schmetzer, Tribune Staff Reporter

U.S. troops in military exercises near China's border

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Some 5,000 American troops are in northern Thailand 
not far from the Chinese border this weekend as part of long-scheduled 
Cobra Gold 2001 military exercises being staged at a time when Thailand and 
Myanmar are trading angry diplomatic missives and live artillery shells.

Among the troops are about 20 instructors from the U.S. 1st Special Forces 
Group who will stay behind after the maneuvers to train Thai commandos in 
anti-guerrilla warfare.

Thailand and Myanmar, formerly Burma, have been at loggerheads for weeks 
over the disputed Doi Lang border area, a longtime stronghold of drug 
warlords whose heroin refineries and amphetamine laboratories have 
flourished for years with the knowledge of key military officers and 
officials on both sides of the border.

Periodic hostilities over control of drug trafficking are no novelty. But 
this time the United States and China are playing key roles on opposite 
sides, just weeks after the U.S. spy plane incident strained their 
bilateral relations.

Navy Adm. Dennis Blair, chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, confirmed last 
week at a news briefing that Washington has sent Special Forces guerrilla 
warfare specialists to act as "instructors" for a Thai commando unit known 
as Task Force 399. Thai military officials gave the initial number of U.S. 
instructors as 20 but said more could be expected.

The same Thai sources said Task Force 399 and the U.S. instructors would be 
stationed at Mae Rim Village just north of Chiang Mai, a garrison town on 
the edge of the infamous Golden Triangle, the poppy-growing zone on the 
Myanmar, Laos and Thailand borders.

The highly mobile unit of about 100 men will use two U.S.-donated Black 
Hawk assault helicopters to chase and neutralize drug smugglers along the 
Golden Triangle, operating less than 100 miles from Chinese border troops.

Their main enemy on the other side of the border will be the United Wa 
State Army, an ethnic narcotics-guerrilla force loyal to the Myanmar 
military junta. Western intelligence sources say China is the principal 
supplier of arms and expertise for the Wa and the Myanmar armed forces.

More than a year ago the Chinese persuaded the ethnic Wa, the most powerful 
and most militant of the hillside tribes, to move their people, their army 
and their drug laboratories from the Myanmar-China border in the north to 
Myanmar's border with Thailand at Doi Lang in the south.

"It was a cunning move. By sending the Wa away from their own border the 
Chinese dramatically reduced drug trafficking into China, which had become 
a major problem for their own population. Sending the Wa to the Thai border 
meant dumping the problem on the Thais and their Western allies," said a 
narcotics expert who requested anonymity.

Asian intelligence sources said Beijing supplied the Wa with sophisticated 
weapons and money in exchange for Wa help in constructing a network of 
roads through Myanmar from China. The road system would give Beijing access 
to seaports and naval bases on the Myanmar coast, an access the Chinese 
have coveted for years.

In a blunt warning, Myanmar's ruling military junta announced it was ready 
"to fight side by side" with the Wa, whom the U.S. State Department has 
identified in reports as major drug producers in the region.

"If intrusions at the border become direct threats to either Wa territory 
or Burmese soil, we are ready to counter them," said Brigadier General Kyan 
Win, deputy director of Myanmar's military intelligence.

At the same time, Win praised China for "offering material and technology 
to develop the border area."

Thai intelligence sources say the Wa already have been given sophisticated 
Chinese-made HN-5N surface to air missiles capable of knocking out 
low-flying airplanes and helicopters. On the other side, the U.S. has 
supplied Thai forces with the latest night-vision, radar and digital 
mapping equipment.

Warriors, the Wa are renown for their do-or-die fighting spirit. With an 
estimated 15,000 members under arms, the Wa members are no pushover for any 
conventional army in the rough terrain of their native habitat.

As U.S. forces prepared last week week for the annual two-week Cobra Gold 
Thai-US exercises, the largest in Asia this year, the Pentagon left no 
doubt which side it supports in the looming Thailand-Myanmar drug war.

"As a military man, I support Thailand," Adm. Blair said. Blair was in 
Thailand to oversee the maneuvers, which also include Singaporean officers 
this year. Both China and Vietnam declined to attend as observers this year.

Myanmar has already warned the Thais that calling in American "specialists" 
over the escalating border dispute is perilous to regional peace. In a 
blunt diplomatic note last week, the junta demanded the Thai military 
withdraw from 35 border outposts that Yangon claims are within its own 
territory. Bangkok has ignored the demand.

Admiral Blair said the U.S. Special Forces instructors and two US Black 
Hawk helicopters had joined Thai Special Forces in the troubled North to 
"teach skills needed to patrol the border." The Americans are working 
closely with Thailand's 3rd Army, a force largely untainted by military 
involvement in the narcotics trade.

Although the maneuvers are publicized as an anti-narcotics campaign, some 
Western diplomats say the extensive military mobilization and American 
participation also are aimed at containing growing Chinese influence in the 
region. Narcotics experts blame Beijing for precipitating the current 
tension by urging the Wa to go south. These observers fear the escalating 
border incidents, with casualties on both sides, have the potential to 
explode into a conflict drawing China and the U.S. into a confrontation.

The military government in Yangon, formerly the Burmese capital of Rangoon, 
made a deal with the Wa in 1989. Diplomats say that in return for allowing 
their poppy-growing and heroin refineries, the Wa would have autonomy in 
their region and police tracts of border areas against armed incursions by 
the Shan people, an ethnic group allied with Thailand. The Shan have been 
fighting Myanmar troops for years.

The Shan also control parts of the border on behalf of their Thai 
neighbors. Myanmar claims the Thais, who long have shown a preference for 
making deals rather than fighting, are allowing the Shan to run their own 
narcotics trade along the border.

The focus of the current trouble is a 20 square-mile border region known as 
Doi Lang near Thailand's northern city, Chiang Mai. Doi Lang virtually 
straddles the border. This makes it a perfect smuggling post for drug 
trafficking. Narcotics laboratories on the Myanmar side import chemicals 
and export heroin and amphetamine through Thailand.

In yet another attempt to crack down on drug peddling, especially in 
schools where as many as 35 percent of students have tested positive to 
amphetamine, the Thais on April 18 executed four narcotics dealers by 
firing squad in Bangkok and had their last hour televised nation-wide. The 
Thais say the Wa settlement of Mong Yawn, which has schools, hospitals, 
stores and bars has only one industry -- laboratories that refine opium 
into heroin or fabricate the designer drug amphetamine with imported 
chemicals. The settlement is just 15 miles inside Mayanmar border, opposite 
the booming Thai border town of Chiang Mai and less than an hour by road 
from the headquarters of Task Force 399.

The man who founded Mong Yawn was Wei Xue-Gang, a Chinese born drug lord. 
He was indicted by a New York court in 1993 for drug-trafficking and is on 
a State Department blacklist of the most wanted drug lords. Soon after Wei 
changed from producing drugs to laundering drug money, the Wa negotiated a 
contract with the United Nations. In exchange for giving up growing 
poppies, the Wa would receive UN financing for alternative crops.

Drug experts say the irresistible lure of vast profits from drugs makes any 
such deal shaky and difficult to police. Aware the UN would monitor by air 
if the poppy crop really had been replaced, the Wa thought of a lucrative 
alternative: The mass production of amphetamines, known as Yaa Baa in 
Thailand and "Ice" in its crystalline form in the West.

The amphetamine industry, based at clandestine Wa laboratories that produce 
the designer drug with imported chemicals, flooded Asia with an estimated 
800 million pills last year. Revenue from this new narcotic windfall 
provides an estimated $250 million annual profit, far more than what the UN 
could offer.
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