[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]

Reuters-FEATURE-Bad year for sugar

Subject: Reuters-FEATURE-Bad year for sugar in opium country 

FEATURE-Bad year for sugar in opium country
09:33 p.m May 13, 1999 Eastern
By David Brunnstrom

MONGLA, Myanmar, May 14 (Reuters) - Sai Lin, an ethnic leader accused by the
United States of heroin trafficking, says he picked the wrong time to get
into sugar.

In 1997, his Eastern Shan State Army declared the area around this town on
Myanmar's China border ``opium free.''

Last year, it established a sugar mill capable of producing 70 tonnes a day
to promote a cash-crop alternative to opium. But now it is stuck with 3,000
tonnes of unsold sugar thanks to global oversupply.

``In the past two years we have been facing many problems and we have been
working very hard to overcome them to maintain what we declared in 1997,''
Sai Lin said.

He spoke to foreign journalists during a recent visit arranged by Myanmar's
military government to areas controlled by ethnic armies with which it
signed ceasefires 10 years ago.

Yangon, criticised abroad for not doing enough to fight drugs and by some of
colluding in the trade, is anxious to publicise and obtain more funding for
eradication efforts.

Colonel Kyaw Thein, of Myanmar's Committee for Drug Abuse Control, said the
problems with the U.N.-recommended project showed the difficulties of
establishing alternatives to opium.

Other substitution efforts are under way, including one to produce buckwheat
which Japan has promised to buy. But even at the best of times such crops
can never be as profitable as opium.


Shan State tribes have grown the drug for over a century and in many
respects it is the ideal crop for the terrain. In the wooded highlands,
peoples like the Akha tribe must scrape a living from a few scraps of land
suitable for cultivation.

Opium is easily transported and can earn a remote village $50 a kg whereas
raw sugar cane sells for less than $20 a tonne.

Since 1989, Myanmar has signed peace agreements with 17 ethnic minority
groups like Sai Lin's which continue to administer their own zones and
maintain armed forces.

Yangon insists it is doing its best to encourage opium eradication in such
areas and claims some success despite accusations that its ceasefires have
facilitated, not cut, heroin output.

It has pledged total opium eradication countrywide by 2014 but says it could
be done sooner if countries like the United States, which has imposed
sanctions on Yangon because of its human rights record, provided sufficient

The latest U.S. Narcotics Control Strategy Report, which identifies Myanmar
as still the world's largest source of illicit opium and heroin, says the
ceasefire pacts involve implicit tolerance of continued involvement in

Myanmar rejects any complicity and says it is working hard at interdiction
of opium from minority areas. But it is leaving ethnic groups to suppress
production themselves.

The United Wa State Army (UWSA) has pledged to eradicate opium by 2005.
``They have told us cultivation has been going on more than a century and
said 'can't you be a bit more patient with us?''' said Kyaw Thein.

UWSA leader Pau Yuqiang rejected U.S. accusations that he is involved in the
heroin trade or that his group's development programmes are financed with
drug money.

Myanmar officials say ethnic groups tax the movement of opium, not by
selling it or heroin. Kyaw Thein declined to point a finger at any ceasefire
group when asked who did trade heroin.


``We are at a loss about that,'' he said. ``But I think the real culprits
are Chinese organised crime groups. They are very secretive and we don't
know who is actually doing the trade.''

Diplomats called Sai Lin's claim to a drug-free zone disingenuous and the
U.S. report puts him at the top of a list of ethnic leaders believed to be
involved in heroin trafficking.

``There are a lot of half-truths, a Yangon-based diplomat said.

``They are in the transit business rather than production, so it's easy to
say they are opium free. They are still involved, but at the same time I do
think they are trying to get out.''

The ethnic leaders rejected suggestions that drug profits had been ploughed
into infrastructure projects.

Certainly though, the decade since the ceasefire has brought a remarkable
gloss of prosperity to Mongla and the Wa headquarters at Pangsang further
north, including miles of road, new power plants, swanky villas and
fledgling shopping centres.

In Pangsang, dozens upon dozens of brand-new Japanese four-wheel-drive cars
ferried delegates to a late-April celebration to mark the 10th anniversary
of the Wa ceasefire.

Sai Lin and Pau Yuqiang insisted their income sources were legitimate. They
cited tourism as a big earner with Mongla receiving 500,000 Chinese visitors
annually and Pangsang 500 a day. Sai Lin said his area also had manganese

Pau Yuqiang said the Wa had cut opium output 30 percent in the past four
years and the group's spokesman, Sam Khum, said production was limited to
nine of 27 townships in the region.

Yangon says the Wa have taken aboard the drugs message, but even it remains
sceptical about the rosy eradication claims.

``They understand they have to stop poppy cultivation because they are being
given a very bad name in the world community,'' Kyaw Thein said.

``They say they don't want to maintain that bad name and have to be more

serious now. There's been some decrease, but you can't say it's been a
significant decrease.''