The Buddhist Way to Wean Drug Lords from Opium Trade

By Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, May 6, 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Buddhist Way to Wean Drug Lords from Opium Trade


Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Rebirth is a major theme in Buddhism. But there is a form of "reincarnation" under way in this Buddhist nation that has international drug investigators working overtime.

Burma's ruling junta is trying to prove there is, indeed, life after being a "godfather" in the Golden Triangle.

Just ask Khun Sa and a host of other opium warlords who are benefiting from a government campaign to embrace the region's criminal underworld as legitimate businessmen, provided they invest their narco-money in Burma. It is a policy that appears rooted in cold pragmatism, perhaps even desperation. The governing generals are seeking to prop up their wheezing economy by appealing to drug traffickers - both current and former - to bring their money home. The key phrase is: No questions asked. "Opium is the one crop that continues to make money for people here," says a Western diplomat. "How much of the money ultimately comes back here and is invested in the economy, nobody knows." The policy is raising concerns that the military government may become hooked on drug money. Given the widening Asian financial crisis, continuing international sanctions against Burma, and less-than-friendly economic conditions inside Burma, the regime has few options for attracting fresh capital. Narco-investment as rehab? Government officials defend their policy, justifying it as an attempt to rehabilitate criminals by weaning them away from lives of crime. But such explanations seem a little convenient to Western diplomats who note that much of the opium and heroin profits are a direct result of lax law enforcement in the Golden Triangle by Burma's government. Analysts point to one Rangoon-based business powerhouse with investments in real estate, finance, mining, tourism, and trade. The company is viewed as the commercial arm of the United Wa State Army, a heavily armed militia now considered the largest, most active drug- trafficking group in the Burma sector of the Golden Triangle. What has some Western analysts in Rangoon concerned is that Burma's drug-money reinvestment policy dovetails with a series of cease-fire agreements reached in 1989 with the same ethnic militias that protect and run the opium and heroin operations. Under the terms of the cease-fire agreements, the ethnic groups pledged to eventually work toward creation of opium-free zones throughout their regions. Deadlines for an absolute halt to all opium trade have been suggested (some as early as 2000), but it is doubtful they will be honored. In the meantime, the region's drug trade is enjoying what looks to be a tacit agreement by the government to allow the traffickers to continue their lucrative operations as long as the cease-fires are honored.

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