Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Wa, the junta and thailand: the triangle's deadly triangle

Call it a desperate public relations stunt, but since 2005 the United Wa State Army (UWSA) - a 30,000-strong ethnic army that operates from the Burmese sector of the Golden Triangle - has been holding "drug bonfires" to support the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.

The irony of this is that the UWSA has been dubbed the world's largest armed drug trafficking gang, and a number of its commanders are wanted by Thai and US law enforcement agencies for heroin trafficking and money laundering.

Unfortunately for this outfit that desperately wants to convince the world that it has kicked the habit, such PR stunts haven't paid off. To make things worse, the military government of Burma, a UWSA ally since 1989, has not been very helpful. The Burmese junta's refusal to join the Wa PR stunt has nothing to do with the argument that the UWSA effort is a sham. If anything, it's more to do with the fact that the two sides have been at odds ever since the ouster in October 2004 of General Khin Nyunt from the junta's top decision-making body, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).

Khin Nyunt was the then Burmese security tsar, who orchestrated a ceasefire with the UWSA in 1989 in exchange for limited Wa autonomy in the so-called Special Region 2 along the Sino-Burma border. Within a decade, the UWSA extended its military and administrative reach to areas along the northern Thai border after defeating rival opium warlord Khun Sa and his Mong Tai Army, in 1996.

Since Khin Nyunt's fall from grace, the 1989 ceasefire has been very shaky. The SPDC wants full control of all the Special Regions they granted to ceasefire groups, and have told the Wa and other ethnic armies to surrender their weapons. The idea is to turn them into some sort of border security regiment under the command of the country's regular army.

So far the SPDC has taken military action against the Kokang Chinese - a similar outfit to the UWSA but much smaller in terms of troop strength - and twisted the arms of several smaller groups to surrender in a series of staged ceremonies.

The Golden Triangle has never been for the faint-hearted. Ethnic armies, opium warlords and drug cartels play for keeps in this rugged area that generates heroin and floods the world with millions of methamphetamine pills on a weekly basis.
The Burmese junta bears much of the responsibility for the situation, having adopted a laissez faire policy over the past two decades rather than meaningful efforts to change the status quo.

Groups like the UWSA have used this time to strengthen themselves strategically and formulate their own foreign policy, hoping to legitimise themselves in the international community. UWSA chairman Bao Yuxiang has called on the UN and other international agencies to help with crop substitution, while the junta puts the plight of poor opium farmers within its own policy formulation.

But drugs and insurgency in the Golden Triangle are two sides of the same coin. The drug equation cannot be tackled without addressing the political factors - which are the grievances of the ethnic armies. Moreover, the Burmese leaders thought the UWSA could become a trump card against the Thai government, permitting the Wa to function as a buffer along the border. Given the historical mistrust between the two countries, such a move was understandable.

While the Burmese actions are strategic in nature, few in the international community find justification for the position taken by Thailand. The Thaksin administration in late 2003 was suckered into donating Bt20 million to a half-baked alternative crop substitution project, the Yong Kha Development Project, to be carried out in a UWSA-controlled area near the Thai border. Some said that Thaksin just wanted to get closer to the Burmese junta for personal reasons, thus the decision to co-sponsor this controversial initiative that did more in terms of legitimising the UWSA than addressing the plight of poor Wa farmers. Thaksin reached out to the Wa despite having publicly declared war on Wei Hsueh-Kang, a UWSA commander wanted in the US and Thailand for heroin trafficking. He had earlier vowed to take down Wei, dead or alive. Moreover, Thai troops are known to have had regular shoot-outs with Wei's men along the rugged border.

But even with Thai help, the Wa's chequered past could not be erased. Just a year after the project began, the US Department of Justice, in January 2005, indicted eight UWSA leaders on new heroin trafficking charges, thus putting the Wa's dream of international acceptance further on the back burner.

The US indictments were a major embarrassment for Thaksin, who had earlier given the UWSA the benefit of the doubt when he dispatched then Third Army Region commander, Lt-General Picharnmate Muangmanee, to participate in the opening ceremony for a Thai-funded school in Wa territory in December 2003.

For a brief moment at the opening ceremony of the Yong Kha Project in 2003, it looked as if things would change for the better in the region. But nobody seriously believed this would last. After all, Thailand's effort had more to do with whitewashing the world's largest drug-trafficking army - and strengthening Thaksin's relations with the junta - than the interests of the Wa people or any long-term peace settlement.

Throughout the entire kiss-and-make-up episode between the Thais and the Burmese, Wei and his gang continued to run their drug-funded businesses through his associates in Burma, China and Thailand, while heroin and methamphetamines coming out of clandestine laboratories in Wa-controlled areas continued to flood world markets.

Today, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over Burma's sector of the Golden Triangle and the future of the Wa's relationship with the Burmese junta. And that future does not look good. By Don Pathan forThe Nation

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