BANGKOK, Thailand – While the war in Afghanistan has severely curtailed the world opium supply, the poppy fields of Burma have been reinvigorated to fill the gap.
The main player in the country’s drug market is the United Wa State Army, ethnic fighters who control areas along the country’s eastern border with Thailand, part of the infamous Golden Triangle. The Wa army, an ally of Burma’s ruling military junta, was once the militant arm of the Beijing-backed Burmese Communist Party.
Burma has been a significant cog in the transnational drug trade since World War II.
According to Thai military intelligence officials, the drug lords in Burma, including the Wa army, have ordered hill tribes living under their sphere of influence to increase opium production. Prices for opium and other drugs in Southeast Asia are rising because of the Afghan shortfall.
“On the Burmese side, we see that new fields are being cleared and planted,” Purachai Sodsong, a Thai military intelligence officer, told WorldNetDaily.
Ironically, the Thai government has proposed putting a “drug-free village” under control of the Wa army that ostensibly would serve as a model for a futuristic Thai-Burmese “new frontier” free of the drug trade. The effort is a project of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, which seeks to promote crop substitution and rehabilitation of drug addicts in the region.
Caught in the crossfire of Burma’s drug trade are the ethnic Karen hill tribes that served British POW’s faithfully during the Japanese occupation of World War II. Burma’s ruling junta has brokered cease-fire pacts with about 17 other armed groups, and only the ethnic Karen remain without an agreement.
“I personally believe this is because the Karen, to a certain extent, maintain their Christian and Catholic beliefs,” Sister Regina de los Santos, a Catholic nun working with the Karen in western Thailand told WorldNetDaily.
“They won’t forget the junta’s soldiers killing their parents, brothers, sisters and children,” she said. “The Karen have fought bravely for several decades. I personally see them as a sword and a terror against the wicked.”
Last week the Burmese junta urged the Karen National Union, the tribal group’s governing body, to lay down its weapons and cease its struggle for autonomy.
De los Santos said the Karen want to build an economy based on Burma’s traditional staples of teak wood, oil, jade and rice, rather than the drug trade.
According to de los Santos, more than 100,000 ethnic Karen live on the Thai side of the border as refugees because they oppose the ruling Burmese junta.
“I fear they will be forcibly repatriated to Burma,” she said, “as Thailand tried to do with the Hmong of Laos back in the fall of 1999.”
The Wa State Army is the world’s largest drug army, with more than 20,000 highly motivated, trained guerilla fighters, reinforced by foreign mercenaries and military trainers and regulars from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
“Whatever Marxist ideology the Wa had in the past has been polluted,” de los Santos said. “Money from Beijing and Russia has dried up, but the Wa have their own cash source – Ya Baa and opium.”
Ya Baa, which means “crazy medicine,” is a popular amphetamine.
Burmese Foreign Minister Win Aung has told Thai officials that Burma “has no drug problem” as far as the ruling junta is concerned. It is the foreigners, or “farangs,” of Thailand, as well as the Thai people, who create the demand that the Burmese are filling, he insists.
The Wa signed a peace agreement with the ruling junta in 1989 and largely have operated free of harassment from junta soldiers over the past decade. Two weeks ago, Burma’s junta ruled out the use of force to bring the Wa army and their increased opium activity under control. More than a thousand Thai workers are working on projects in areas controlled by the Wa army.
Aung, speaking at the sixth Thai-Burma Joint Commission, told the international community that “the Wa leadership is becoming more and more aware of its responsibility to stop drug trafficking. They have assured us – and we believe them – that they will stop. We are here to show them the road to take, so they can have a better understanding of their own position.”
Thailand, according to de los Santos, “seems eager to sweep the messy issues of drugs and refugees under the rug and establish normalized relations with the Burmese junta.”
Thailand has proposed testing millions of students for drugs in a new national crusade. The proposal has yet to be fully debated, but it was given impetus when a new national study indicated that more and more Thai children are selling drugs for profit.