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WASHINGTON—Despite claims that it is cooperating with other Mekong countries to crack down on the narcotics trade, Burma's military regime appears unwilling to make serious efforts to end drug production within its borders and may even be facilitating it, a top U.S. official says.
"I think there is no reason to believe that they are conscientiously attacking this in a way that gives anybody real confidence that they want to get out of the drug trade," Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Richard Charles told RFA’s Burmese service.
"I think there's reasonably strong evidence this year again that the military actually facilitates illicit narcotics activities."
"Burma seems to be in some ways far, far back in the pack in any effort to conscientiously attack this problem."
Charles said that while small inroads had been made into opium production through crop substitution programs, the production of amphetamines with a far higher profit margin had shown a marked increase in recent months.
Burma is the world’s second highest opium producer following Afghanistan, producing 800 metric tonnes per year, worth an estimated U.S. $105 million, according to a 2003 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Afghanistan produced 3,600 tons of opium last year.
The UNODC said opium cultivation in Burma had fallen from 81,400 hectares in 2002 to 62,200 hectares in 2003. But it highlighted a growing amphetamine production base in the country.
Rampant corruption throughout the country’s police force and army compounds the problem, Charles said. "I think there’s reasonably strong evidence this year again that the military actually facilitates illicit narcotics activities."
The six Mekong river countries, including China and Thailand, have begun cooperating to exchange anti-drug trafficking intelligence and to create programs to provide job alternatives to poverty-trapped producers.
But Charles said Burma was economically too weak to sustain too many crop substitution programs.
"There was an effort missing from the junta, or from the Burmese government generally, to go after the mission of creating roads, for example, that would allow these crops that were legitimate to get to market," he told RFA.
"Their internal market is not probably strong enough to sustain that," he said.
The UNODC says Burma has boosted amphetamine production and to has found new trafficking routes to all countries in the region. Most Burmese amphetamine laboratories are in the Wa special regions ruled by drug lord Hkawn Sa who is strongly connected with the regime in Rangoon.
Thailand and Burma both frequently report the seizure of amphetamines manufactured in Burma.
"As the world market—or at least the Asian market—gives you a higher marginal profit on amphetamines, it is not so surprising to me that they would reduce some of their production of opium and substitute for it the production of amphetamines," Charles said.
On the Web:
Interview with the Burma representative at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime
Opium production down but amphetamine production rising in Burma
Burma Project, Open Society Institute