Burma's narco-dictatorship has hooked that nation on the drug trade, and it's pumping heroin to the United States


December 22, 1996|By Dennis Bernstein and Leslie Kean

BURMA -- or Myanmar, more formally -- makes the Western news pages mostly for its repression of the struggling democracy movement led by Nobel peace laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is continually harassed and was recently physically attacked while trying to address her followers. But those who dare to take a serious approach to drug eradication are likely to end up in deadlier trouble with the ruling dictatorship, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, which has incorporated the booming heroin trade into the permanent economy of the country.

Consider the case of U Saw Lu, a revered leader in the mountainous poppy-growing region of the Wa territory, one of the many ethnic regions in Burma. Lu, a Wa prince and chairman of the United Wa State Anti-Narcotics and Development Organization, has waged a risky opium eradication campaign on behalf of his people since the SLORC seized power in a 1988 coup.

In January 1992, after U Saw Lu informed the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration about the drug trafficking activities of a regional SLORC chief and a local drug warlord, he found himself face to face with a torture squad. According to DEA "Sensitive" e-mail, "he was held upside down for 56 days with 220 current attached to one of his favorite appendages." A doctor who remained present through the torture session revived Lu when he passed out. Urine was poured on his face and he was beaten with chains as he lay near death next to a freshly dug grave. His life was spared after Wa leaders threatened military action during a meeting with SLORC's head of military intelligence, Gen. Khin Nyunt.

"There were terrible scars all over his body after the torture," said Benjamin Min, a former SLORC official from Rangoon, who quit )) the dictatorship and jointed Lu in his war against drugs. "He had internal injuries and he needed medical attention."

Maj. Than Aye, the intelligence officer Lu had told the DEA about, supervised the torture sessions. The drug shipment Aye had been overseeing was on its way to one of the world's most notorious drug kingpins, Lo Hsing Han, destined to become a key business partner of Burma's emerging narco-dictatorship. Major Aye has since been promoted to a high-level government position by the ruling council.

According to Benjamin Min, Lu continued to work on opium eradication although he was warned during his torture to terminate any relationship with the DEA In 1993, Lu gave DEA special agent Richard Horn a document titled "The Bondage of Opium: The Agony of the Wa People, a Proposal and Plea."

In his plea, Lu outlined specific steps that were needed to promote opium eradication among the Wa farmers, who provide 80 percent of Burma's opium crop. The Wa, an ethnic minority of 1 million, live in a remote area of Burma's Shan State where there are no roads, no educational system, no medical clinics and electricity for less than 10 percent of families. Even though the Wa farmers grow one of the globe's most sought-after crops, they remain among the world's poorest peoples. Lu knew that any hope of change had to include a serious plan for crop substitution. "Like the heroin addicts that result from the opium, we too are in bondage. We are searching for help to break that bondage," he wrote in his proposal to the DEA.

Communications between the DEA's Rangoon office and higher officials in Washington reveal that agent Horn had every intention of working with the Wa people to implement Lu's

proposal. But for reasons that remain unclear, the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department had other ideas. DEA sensitive e-mails state that former CIA chief of station Arthur Brown "destroyed his project in one swift move." According to the e-mails, Brown delivered in an early version of the Wa proposal - signed by Lu - to SLORC military intelligence officer Col. Kyaw Thein. When Thein threated to pick up Lu once more and teach him a lesson in respect, Horn was able to intervene temporarily. In Horn's view, the CIA destroyed a unique opportunity for a dramatic drug eradication program in the poppy fields of the world's biggest heroin producer. (Horn, now a DEA group supervisor in New Orleans, is suing the CIA, claiming it illegally surveiled his residence in Rangoon to gain information about his plans, which the CIA went on to foil.)

In September 1993, Horn was forced out of the country by the State Department under pressure from the CIA. The plans of the Wa prince and his chief deputy, Benjamin Min, were crushed. A year later, Min risked his life to take the Wa Proposal and Plea to policy-makers in Washington. Before he left, the SLORC hatched a series of unsuccessful assassination plots. In his sworn testimony to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which won him asylum in the United States, Min states, "Their aim was to assassinate the Wa leaders, specifically U Saw Lu and myself as his chief deputy."

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