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Rangoon makes a curious choice to h

Subject: Rangoon makes a curious choice to host drug talks

Rangoon makes a curious choice to host drug talks

The choice of Burma for an Interpol drug conference is causing the deepest
divisions in recent memory among anti-drug officials.

Most European nations will boycott the Fourth International Heroin
Conference, which begins in Rangoon on Feb 23. Thailand will send a full
delegation, as will France and Italy. The Americans also will attend - but
will be represented only by their Rangoon-based agents with the Drug
Enforcement Administration.

The decision by Interpol to convene in Burma has raised major passions.
Whatever progress the conference may make is certain to be overwhelmed by
the debate over the site itself.

Some angry officials charge the International Criminal Police Organisation
with overstepping its responsibility. The agency's constitution forbids it
from undertaking any activities of a political character.

Virtually all nations in the world are members of Interpol, which gathers
information only and has no actual police powers. The official purpose of
the Rangoon conference is to investigate the consumption and international
trafficking of heroin. Police officers also will try to strengthen

Among the countries which will boycott the meeting are Britain, Denmark, the
Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Germany, which is trying to mend the
Europe-Asean rift over Burma, has still not announced if it will send a

China and Thailand, the two nations most affected by Burma's trafficking in
heroin and amphetamines, will send full delegations to the Rangoon meeting.
Surin Pitsuwan, the foreign minister, praised Burmese anti-drug efforts last
week after two small drug seizures.

Passions are high.

The New York-based Open Society Institute, backed by billionaire George
Soros, called on the US to boycott the meeting. Mr Soros's group said it was
"like holding a convention on weapons of mass destruction in Baghdad or on
women's rights in Afghanistan". The institute normally backs the
legalisation of drugs.

Burma continues to provide sanctuary to the world's most famous heroin
traffickers, including Lo Hsing-han and Khun Sa. In addition, anti-drug
agents have claimed recently that Thai fugitive amphetamine king Surachai

"Bang Ron" Ngernthongu has taken refuge inside Burma.

Rangoon, which seldom is awarded the honour of hosting an international
conference, already has begun to exploit the meeting for its propaganda

A statement issued on Sunday by the ruling junta, known as the State Peace
and Development Council, said Burma would be delighted to issue visas to
officials from United States and the European Union - although both ban
visas for senior Burmese officials.

"In fact we are more than happy to cooperate and work with officials from
any country in the fight against the narcotic drug menace," said a junta
officer in Rangoon.

A statement from the Shan Democratic Union, an opposition group, called on
all Interpol members "to boycott the ridiculous conference".

The dispute over the conference site now vastly overshadows the heroin
problem, which is once again growing around the world. Burma is the world's
largest producer of opium and heroin, according to US and United Nations
figures. The latest US "World Factbook" said the Burmese opium crop was
2,340 metric tonnes.

In fact, as usual, the Interpol meeting is scheduled to be all talk and no
immediate action. A particularly bland agenda calls for discussions on
heroin trafficking in Southeast and Southwest Asia, smuggling in Africa,
money laundering and - an old discussion favourite - traffic in precursor
chemicals used to make heroin.

It remains to be seen whether delegates of those countries which bother to
show up will be too polite to mention that heroin holds up the host regime.
Apart from laundered drug profits, there are few local or foreign
investments in Burma.

For its part, Burma is promising through pre-conference literature to be a
good Interpol host, and has promised to pick up all arriving delegates and
their spouses at the Rangoon airport.