Monday, January 31, 2005

MYANMAR: Assessment - Drugs Trafficking, Power stuggle [2 News Clippings]


01. Today's Burma funded by drugs
02. Power struggle increases uncertainty
01. Today's Burma funded by drugs

Thailand and the United States have taken legal steps against the biggest, richest druglords in Asia. A US federal court accepted a case against eight leaders and drug peddlers with the United Wa State Army for making, smuggling and selling opium, heroin and amphetamines.

Thailand, which already has criminal cases against several of the Wa, took a direct and active interest in the US case. This case is not just a symbol but an important milestone in a crucial battle. The single reason these dangerous, long-term drug traffickers continue to run drug cartels for profit is because of the protection of the
Burmese dictatorship.

The indictment was announced at parallel news conferences in New York district by the US attorney Roslynn Mauskopf and in Bangkok by deputy national police chief Pol Gen Priewpan Damapong. Both had senior drug officials by their side. The two big names on the indictment were Wei Hsueh Lung and Pao Yu Hsiang. Mr Wei is by far the more notorious. He was arrested in Thailand in November 1988 on charges involving 680kg of heroin, but jumped bail. Mr Pao is the lesser known but more
infamous of the leaders. In Burma, Mr Pao is not just a drug trafficker for the government and Wa army commander; he is one of the country's top businessmen and investors.

Mr Pao recently estimated he is the owner outright or is a member of the board of directors of 43 large Burmese companies. They include many firms under the umbrella of the large and influential May Flower Group, which includes Burma's third largest bank. He is the head of Yangon Airlines, one of two domestic airlines in Burma. According to recent visitors to the Wa region, Mr Pao has an estimated 20,000 men under military arms, has taken over and industrialised the jade mines once controlled by Shan and national Chinese groups, and is the overseer of all Wa drug-growing and manufacturing, which is to say all important drug trafficking in Burma.

According to Mr Pao, the decision to eradicate opium growing and heroin trafficking this year _ the current harvest is to be the last was easy from a financial viewpoint. He made ``only $5 million [192 million baht]'' from opiate sales last year, just a relative drop in his still growing business empire. Much of this empire is considered legal and, in some circles, even respectable. Mr Pao and his partners frequently dine and do business deals with not just the government but other businessmen from abroad, including from Thailand.

In this, Mr Pao and the other accused and indicted Wa leaders are following past precedent. The original opium warlord, Lo Hsing-han, is one of the biggest businessmen in Burma. He recently opened an entire port in Rangoon, the rough equivalent of a Chon Buri province mafia gangster chief building a rival port to Laem Chabang on the eastern seaboard. Mr Lo's successor as opiate trafficker, the heroin king Khun Sa, also has been turned into a supposedly respectable businessman, based in Rangoon and as safe as Mr Lo from the many foreign warrants for his arrest, including in Thailand.

All of this happens, of course, thanks to the government of Burma. For the past 43 years, military dictators have nurtured close relations with drug traffickers, and encouraged them to grow, make and smuggle opium, heroin and methamphetamines to the world. The Golden Triangle of old has long shrunk to just one country. As Mr Lo, Khun Sa and then the Wa built and ran vicious drug cartels, the Rangoon regimes from Ne Win's in 1962 to Than Shwe's today have profited from the drug trade.

A notation after each name in the drug indictment is telling: ``Residence Burma''. Anyone or any government doing deals with Rangoon should realise that most local investment in that country is laundered drug money. Some five-star hotels, many finance houses and a large percentage of all tourist facilities are built by money from
druglords. It is unacceptable that Burma should protect some of the world's top drug traffickers just because they pass some of their profits through the generals.


02. Power struggle increases uncertainty

War appears to have broken out between the junta's top generals with there being talk of mental instability


Rangoon is rife with rumours and speculation of coups and gun battles within the country's secretive military leadership. These rumours have been fuelled by the mysterious and unexplained death over a week ago of Lieutenant-Colonel Bo Win Tun, the personal assistant to the country's second most powerful general, Maung Aye.

The streets of the capital city though are comparatively calm. There is little evidence of extra security, except around the notorious Insein prison. But this apparent atmosphere of normality belies the reality _ a bitter power struggle is taking place between Burma's top generals.

Burma's top two military leaders Senior General Than Shwe and the number two, Vice Senior General Maung Aye, are locked in a struggle for control. ``It's a struggle for supremacy,'' according to an Asian diplomat based in Rangoon.

In recent months, Gen Maung Aye appears to have been upset because he was being sidelined and overshadowed by Gen Than Shwe's protege, Lieutenant-General Soe Win. Lt-Gen Soe Win was recently appointed prime minister to replace General Khin Nyunt, who was purged last October largely because of his opposition to Gen Than Shwe's hardline views.

Gen Maung Aye has persistently accused Lt-Gen Soe Win of being incompetent, said a Burmese businessman.

There may also have been a disagreement between the two over how to deal with Burma's ethnic groups, especially those which have ceasefire agreements with Rangoon. With the National Convention drafting the new constitution about to resume, there is increasing pressure on the groups to surrender their arms. Gen Maung Aye is keen to have this done as soon as possible.

But the prime minister's greatest fault in Gen Maung Aye's eyes was most likely to be his unbending loyalty to the senior general.

Lt-Gen Soe Win's promotion to prime minister was always seen as a stop-gap measure. ``Soe Win was a buffer and scapegoat from the start,'' said a senior Southeast Asian diplomat who closely follows the Burmese political scene. The new prime minister recently confided to a close family friend that he was powerless.

Lt-Gen Soe Win has already been told he has been sacked as prime minister, according to reliable military sources. The problem is that the two top generals cannot agree on who should replace him.

Over the last four months, there have been several major shake-ups of the cabinet. These were mainly aimed at purging ministers who were close to the former intelligence chief and prime minister Gen Khin Nyunt.

Most of them have been allowed to retire quietly, including the former foreign minister, Win Aung. But two other Khin Nyunt confidants were less fortunate, according to Burmese officials in Rangoon. Former home minister Tin Hlaing is in Insein facing charges, while former labour minister Tin Winn is under house arrest.

But more cabinet changes are imminent, a senior Burmese foreign ministry official, Than Tun, told journalists in Phuket last week when he was there for an international tsunami meeting. Diplomats in Rangoon believe a new prime minister and cabinet are likely to be announced within the next few weeks.

Changes to the ruling State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC, and the powerful regional commanders are also in the pipeline, according to Burmese government officials. All these changes will almost certainly see more of Gen Maung Aye's people replacing Than Shwe loyalists, but maintaining a fine balance of power.

``The present delay means that the two top men cannot agree on who should get the key positions,'' said a Southeast Asian diplomat who has dealt with Burma's leaders for years.

Diplomats in Rangoon believe that Gen Maung Aye is not anxious to have a high profile battle with the country's top leader. But angered by Gen Than Shwe's self-appointment as a Burmese monarch and his Ne Win policies _ adopted from the former Burmese dictator _ Gen Maung Aye is anxious to reduce the senior general's influence.

``Maung Aye does not want Than Shwe to feel openly threatened, he does not want to confront him outright, but he does want to clip his powerbase,'' said a senior Asian diplomat with strong ties to the Burmese junta.

Burma's military leaders of course have been quick to deny any suggestion of attempted coups or a power struggle in Rangoon. ``It's all just rumours; everything there is fine,'' Foreign Minister Nyan Win told journalists on Friday in Phuket.

The speculation of a possible coup has been fuelled by the apparent absence of the top generals from the official media. This led to rumours that Gen Maung Aye had been killed in a fatal shootout amongst the top brass and that Prime Minister Soe Win was under house arrest.

To counter these reports, Burma's state-controlled television and newspapers began at the weekend to show the top military leaders, including Gen Maung Aye and Lt-Gen Soe Win, attending official functions. ``They were shown in unusual circumstances and it was broadcast to dispel the rumours,'' a Western diplomat in Rangoon said.

Burma's top military leader is a master at political intrigue and counter-intelligence. He studied psychological warfare in depth as a junior officer in the Burmese army. It will not be the first time the generals have taken pains to publicly show unity when there is a major internal battle going on.

There is also increasing concern within the ranks of the army over the future of the country. The start of the mass trials of the former military intelligence officers has caused disquiet within the military, particularly in the navy and air force. More than 300 former soldiers and civilians are on trial in courts especially formed inside Insein prison accused of economic crimes and corruption. Most are expected to be sentenced to more than 30 years jail.

``It's a form of cannibalism, the army is eating its own flesh,'' a retired Burmese military officer said about the witch-hunt that is being conducted against the former military intelligence chief and his soldiers.

Anything to do with Gen Khin Nyunt has been purged. Photographs, posters and billboards showing him have been taken down. The spire in the famous Shwedagon temple in Rangoon, which Gen Khin Nyunt had covered in gold, has been boarded up. The authorities have also scoured the civil service and sacked anyone who got his post as a result of a recommendation from a military intelligence officer.

This has all contributed to a growing resentment within military and government. Many are convinced it is all a pretext to destroy Gen Khin Nyunt and his men. ``All we are doing is putting innocent people in jail,'' a policeman investigating one the Gen Khin Nyunt's senior generals recently confided to friends.

The fear is Gen Than Shwe may be losing his grip. Some military men are beginning to wonder whether he is mentally unstable. Comparisons are being drawn with the former military leader General Saw Maung, who had a mental breakdown and was removed by the triumvirate of Gen Than Shwe, Gen Maung Aye and Gen Khun Nyunt in 1992.

The longer the battle between Burma's two top generals is unresolved, the greater the uncertainty about the country's future.

Diplomats in the region are wary about the outcome. ``If Gen Maung Aye is fully in control, it will be a severe setback for the ethnic groups and the international community,'' said a senior Asean diplomat responsible for policy towards Burma.

The fear is Gen Maung Aye would be even more isolationist, chauvinistic and xenophobic than the senior general.