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Burma must face the drug reality

Burma must face the drug reality

Burma is the largest producer of heroin and opium in the world. The United
Nations has criticised unchecked drug trafficking in Burma. Membership in
Asean has had little effect on production of opium or shipments of heroin
and amphetamines. Burmese authorities may not understand the extent of
their problems.

Bangkok Post
April 24, 1998

The making and trafficking drugs in Burma has long been a major headache
for Thailand and other neighbours. To its vast opium fields and its system
of heroin factories have recently been added networks of amphetamine makers
and dealers. The many tentacles of drug manufacturing and smuggling have
caused immense difficulties on our side of the border. These range from
increased addiction of Thais to drugs, through criminal enterprise that
have done major harm to our economy.

Now it must be asked whether Burma is even aware of the problems it faces
at home from drugs, and the burdens it places on its neighbours. In the
first few months of this year, Burma has appeared to cooperate in a number
of anti-drug initiatives. These have occurred both at home and in Rangoon's
diplomatic dealings. But its statements and reactions have so often been at
odds with the known and obvious facts that one must wonder it Burmese
authorities are aware of what is going on under their noses.

Early in the year, Burma and the United States cooperated in a survey of
the Burmese opium fields. The six-day inspection covered all the country's
major and minor poppy-growing areas. Officials found what they have found
for the past decade -- the opium fields continue to grow in scope and size.
The on-site inspections, combined with satellite photos from US, the Unites
Nations and elsewhere, found opium flourishing as ever. The crop estimate
was 2,500 tonnes of opium.

Rangoon wasn't buying this international estimate. Even though Burmese
officials led the fourth annual on-site inspections with the Americans,
Rangoon simply won't accept its result. The crop size and acreage are both
over-estimated by the international experts, say Burmese officials. The
United Nations reports that 300,000 hectares has been under opium
cultivation in Burma in the 10 years since 1988, producing at least 2,000
tonnes of opium annually. Burma claims that 9,630.9 hectares is under
poppies, yielding 106 tonnes of opium.

The question is whether Rangoon is dissembling or deluding itself. The
official Burmese reports, such as this one, are so silly that they are
simply unbelievable. Take the acreage of poppies Burma claims. Any opium
farmer could tell authorities that the crop yield would be less than 10
tonnes -- not the 106 tonnes Rangoon claims -- since poppies yield less
than 10 kg of opium per hectare on average.

Computer operators coined a phrase many years ago that seems applicable
here: garbage in garbage out. If Rangoon is mistaken or lying to itself
about the opium crop, it cannot conduct effective operations to reduce and
eliminate the flow of narcotics.  If Rangoon attempts to design a
crop-replacement programme that assume less than 10,000 hectares of
cropland, then the anti-opium campaign will fail.

This is crucial matter to Burma, its neighbours including Thailand, and the
world community. The United Nations, which is funded by taxpayers
worldwide, is about to embark on a major anti-drug programme in Burma. The
centrepiece is a crop-replacement programme for Burma's exploited opium

The UN programme will mark the first major cooperation by Burma with the
international community against drug trafficking. It is Rangoon's
opportunity to show that it means what it says about helping Burma's
neighbours with their narcotics problems. But it must be itself about the
scope of the problem it faces, there is no chance it can help either its
own people or others.