ELECTIONS promised for Burma this year have sparked an explosion in drug-trafficking into Thailand, as rebel armies, fearful of a final, pre-poll crackdown by the ruling junta, trade heroin and amphetamines for guns.
Rebel armies, most notably the Wa State Army, have for decades financed their fight against the oppressive Burma junta by running drugs over the border, from where they are trafficked all over the world.
A decade ago, the Golden Triangle between Thailand, Burma and Laos supplied half the world's heroin. Afghanistan produces more now, but drug barons in Burma have turned to manufacturing massive quantities of amphetamines and methamphetamines - which can be produced cheaply and independent of rainfall in small, hidden laboratories.
Now, Burma's illicit drug trade and the country's flawed electoral process appear set to collide.
The Burmese junta has promised elections this year, likely in October, though few in the international community expect them to be free or fair. The ruling generals have vowed to bring the rebel armies under their command and turn them into border guards before the polls are held.
The deadline for the Wa to come under central government control has lapsed and its leaders have become increasingly worried about attack by government troops.
Colonel Peeranate Gatetem, head of the Thai army's anti-drug Pha Muang Task Force, says the number of drug runs has increased exponentially in recent months, as a desperate Wa - outnumbered and outgunned by the junta's troops - prepares to fight.
'This year will be the biggest for amphetamines,' Colonel Peeranate said. 'In all of last year, we intercepted 1.2 million pills. This year, in just six months, already we have seized 5 million. This year there has been an explosion.
He said authorities were likely uncovering only a tiny fraction of what wass being taken across the border, by most estimates between 1 or 2 per cent. The amphetamine trade is huge now, we think it will be around 300 million to 400 million pills this year. But it is hard to know.
Sources within Burma say the drug labs are working round the clock, with new ones being built.
And larger and larger drug shipments are being captured by troops and police.
The UN's Office on Drugs and Crime has noticed the increase, as has Thailand's Office of Narcotics Control Board.
Minority groups that feel under threat from the central government are using drug trafficking to sustain themselves and keep control of their territories, UN representative Gary Lewis said.
With the money they are making, Col Peeranate said, the Wa were arming themselves with surface-to-air missiles bought from China, and AK-47 assault rifles.
The Burmese government wants the Wa to disarm, to come under government control and become a border guard force.
But the Wa will not ever agree to do that, so they are preparing for the government troops to move in on them. They are getting ready to fight.
They are selling more and more drugs so they can buy weapons to fight the government. They are producing millions of pills, which they are smuggling across the border, he said.
The Age met Wa soldiers close to the Burma border. The Wa would not participate in the election, they said, and they refused to co-operate with the illegitimate and brutal junta. We protect our territory. We fight for [our] people.
They refused to discuss drugs. Our life here is hard. We are poor. We always need to make money some way, any way to feed our people. We need to survive.
In Thailand, a former Wa drug runner who now works undercover for the Thai army gathering intelligence on drug shipments said: The Wa are very worried, they think [the] junta's soldiers are coming soon, to take control before the election.
The soldiers are afraid. They sell the drugs to buy many, many guns so they can fight. The Wa fighters will be ready, and they will fight.
BEN DOHERTY, BANGKOK
June 21, 2010
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