10 May, 1998

By Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark

Burma's military junta is evicting thousands of villagers from previously
drug-free areas for refusing to transform their rice fields into poppy
plantations as part of a United Nations-backed "drug control" programme.

The regime has told its UN sponsors that it is moving villagers away from
regions where drugs are being produced and uprooting the poppy fields left

However, an investigation by The Sunday Times and two independent human
rights organisations, has found that the junta is secretly expanding the
number of opium farms in these designated drug control areas. Video footage
of burning poppy fields presented to the UN in support of funding
applications for schemes worth millions of pounds has been faked.

In interviews with dozens of farmers, soldiers and retired civil servants,
in areas where the UN has been told there is no poppy cultivation, it
emerged that the Burmese regime now controls vast networks of opium
producing villages. In areas where the UN is funding eradication
programmes, officials of the military government are running trafficking
syndicates, which target addicts in Europe and Asia.

Burma has now overtaken Afghanistan, which for many years supplied the
majority of the world's heroin. While the Afghanis last year produced 123
tonnes of the drug, the military junta in Burma manufactured more than 250
metric tonnes, according to the US State Department's International
Narcotics Control Strategy Report (published last month).

Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, quoted in a forthcoming report on
Burma's narco-economy by the South Asian Information Network (SAIN), said:
"The failure of the regime to address this issue [the production of heroin]
- indeed their apparent willingness to abet and profit from the drugs trade
- deserves the strongest condemnation."

The military government's abuse of its UN-aided drug control programme to
expand rather than reduce heroin production first emerged in January. In
the remote Arakan Yoma mountain range, in central Burma, 330 miles west of
Rangoon, the army issued written orders to 5,000 villagers from Ngape

People were told to leave the area immediately, with the government
publicly claiming that they were opium farmers who refused to destroy their
crops. Many were sent to Burma's border with India. They told how they had
been forced from their homes for refusing orders to grow opium after poppy
farmers from other parts of Burma had been brought to their communities by
the army. "We had never grown opium before but the soldiers said we had to
plant poppies or lose our land," one said.

A 34-year-old woman, who had left her home and possessions behind, said
that only the opium farmers were left alone. "This was not a drug clearing
scheme; the army hi-jacked our land to grow drugs." 

Many told how the army issued orders for villagers to grow a second,
smaller crop. "We were told by the soldiers that they would film the
burning of this area to show the foreigners that poppies were being
destroyed," a 52-year-old man said. The main crop would be left untouched.

The Arakan relocation was not an isolated incident. Refugees from Shan
State, in the north east of Burma, where the UN has spent several million
pounds on drug control programmes over the last three years, told how they
were ordered back to areas previously cleared of poppies. "The army told us
we had to cultivate opium again. If we refused, we were told we would have
to pay compensation to the government which would also confiscate the
land," a 45-year-old man told The Sunday Times. The orders were later
publicised in the government's newspaper, which claimed that the opium was
needed for "compounding indigenous medicine". However, villagers said that
the use of opium for herbal compounds was insignificant and that all the
opium was taken by soldiers.

In Chin State, on the north west border with India, Burma's ruling State
Peace and Development Council advised the UN that there was no opium
production. But, according to retired police officers in the state's
northern Tiddim Township, interviewed by Images Asia, a human rights
organisation based in Thailand, video footage of villagers destroying the
poppy fields had been faked. Officials from Burma's Central Drug Control
Bureau, a UN-funded government department, had filmed the fields being
weeded but claimed the footage showed farmers uprooting the plants.

While the film was being shown to the UN in Rangoon, the army in Tiddim
Township supervised poppy cultivation schemes. More than 15 acres of land
in every village was set aside for the crop and each grower paid an annual
licence of 10,000 kyat (£25) to the Drug Control Bureau and 5,000 kyat
(£13) to the police. Each acre of land yielded six kilograms of opium paste
sold for 90,000 kyat (£220). 

It takes the yield of 10 villages to produce more than 80 kilograms of pure
heroin in hi-tech refineries, which would fetch £15 million on Britain's
streets. It is alleged that Burmese army battalions now guard many of these
chemical factories.

Farmers and former couriers told Images Asia that six new refineries had
recently opened on the banks of the Chindwin River, which runs parallel to
Burma's border with India, in the neighbouring Sagaing Division. The
British Chindits, an elite force of soldiers and Gurkhas, who forged it to
fight the Japanese in World War Two, made the river famous. Today army
bases, including the headquarters of the 52nd, 89th, 222nd, 228th, 235th
regiments, have been established next to large heroin refineries.

After refining, pure heroin is packaged under one of four brand names,
Tigerhead, 555, Two Lions and Double UO Globe and transported by police
officers and soldiers. One former army officer, living near the Indo-Burma
border, told Images Asia that his superior had recently taken 35 kilograms
of heroin in his car, which he sold for £500,000, at the Burmese border
town of Tamu, near Manipur in north east India. Myo Min, a border trader,
said he had seen many military officials transporting drugs. "Army officers
and soldiers willingly participate in the drug trade and I saw high ranking
military personnel buying and carrying opium and heroin. I have never seen
them arrested."

The South Asian Information Network, which has monitored the army's
involvement in drug trafficking, also carried out interviews with traders
and drivers on the Indo-Burma border, for a report to be published later
this year. Many said they had been issued with military passes, signed by
Khin Nyunt, one of the most powerful men in the junta. The authorisations
were stuck to the windscreens of the vehicles used to transport drugs.

The same stories emerged on the Thai-Burma border where a checkpoint guard,
in eastern Shan State, told The Sunday Times how he stopped a trailer
loaded with heroin and was shown a pass signed by Khin Nyunt. He phoned the
general's office in Rangoon and was told to let the trailer pass as the
drugs were allegedly being transported to a destruction centre. The load
was never seen again.

In Rangoon, the regime has created legislation to help launder the proceeds
of drugs and introduced an investment scheme where Rangoon banks, in
exchange for a 25 per cent fee called a "whitening tax", wash dubious
money. According to the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations
Conference on Trade and Development, in 1996 there was £250 million of
unexplained investment attracted by the scheme. The US State Department
narcotics strategy report concluded that Burma's economy was now heavily
reliant on drug profits: "There is reason to believe that the laundering of
drug profits is having a substantial impact on the Burmese economy."

The victims of the burgeoning narco-economy can be seen in the bamboo huts
of villages in Chin, Shan, Kachin and Arakan States where opiate addiction
is endemic and killing hundreds of thousands. Some addicts are so young
they can barely lift their opium pipes. Aung Than was only seven, but spent
much of the day intoxicated. In the house next door, the women of the Nhkum
family were quietly mourning their three sons. The boys, aged 13, 17 and
21, friends of Aung Than, had all died of heroin overdoses. Death now came
so frequently to Pang Sak village, sometimes twice a day, that it passed
almost without note.

The community, in northern Burma's Kachin State, had become known as the
Village of Widows. In the last three years, all the male adults, including
Aung Than's father, had died of drug addiction after families were ordered
by the military to cultivate opium poppies instead of rice. Now the sons
were following their fathers.

The decimation of the community was recorded in a secret health report
smuggled to Thailand: "There are drug addicts in every house here, all of
the village boys from seven to 25-years old, and the older ones are already

In Pang Sak village, Aung Than was sick again. "I want to stop using the
pipe but our fields are full of poppies, not rice, and the smoke makes my
hunger go away," he said.