MAE SAM LAEP, Thailand -- On the steep banks of the Salween River, which forms the border with Myanmar (formerly Burma), this small Thai town is having something of a timber boom.
All around it the world's last great stand of teak forest is being ravaged to help finance Myanmar's military government and its long border war against ethnic insurgents.
Every day now in the dry season, when the muddy roads through the mountains are more easily passable,rafts of teak logs come floating down the river.
The logs, some worth as much as $25,000, are winched onto trucks to be taken farther into Thailand, and then beyond, to Japan, the United States and Western Europe, where most are turned into furniture.
More than 24.7 million cubic feet of teak a year are now coming out of Myanmar's forests, said Y. S. Rao, the regional forestry officer of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Bangkok, who tries to keep track of the destruction despite only limited access to the border.
According to satellite photographs, at least 1.2 million acres of Myanmar's tree cover disappears each year, with mechanized logging, largely uncontrolled, killing saplings as well as mature trees.
The old Burma Selection System, worked out by British colonialists, with cutting in 30-year cycles, has been replaced by the widespread and uncontrolled use of bulldozers, tractors and chain saws.
In Myanmar, some of the profits of these teak concessions, paid in hard currency, are turned into guns and planes that enable Myanmar'smilitary rulers to fight their war against the Karen, the Kachin and the Mon.
After the Myanmar military crushed pro-democracy demonstrations in September 1988, it was shunned by much of the rest of the world.
The Southeast Asian government found itself with all foreign aid suspended, trade negligible, foreign debt of some $6 billion and foreign reserves of only $10 million to $12 million.
But from Thailand came a series of contracts and concessions givingThai companies, some of them with military connections, the right to sell Myanmar's rubies and cut Myanmar's teak.
By February 1989, 20 concessions along the Thailand-Myanmar border had been sold for an unknown amount of hard currency. Today, 49 concessions have been awarded to 29 Thai companies, with some concessions in the interior, granted as joint ventures, sold to companies from Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
In the last two dry seasons, the military has captured a large
portionof the forested border region, which extends from Laos in the north along the Dawna Mountains to below Three Pagodas Pass in the south.
Karen rebel leader Gen. Bo Mya, interviewed at his headquarters at Manerplaw, a few miles upriver from here, said the Burmese now control about half the Karen territory.
Mr. Rao calls the destruction "heart-rending."
But he thinks that the Burmese "now seem to be getting the message," asking Thailand for an official joint venture to curb the depredations of unregulated Thai companies.