Hooked on Heroin
While authorities in most of the world are battling a heroin epidemic that is claiming a new generation of 13-year-old addicts, authorities in Burma are quietly supporting the drug trade fueling that epidemic.Burma is swiftly becoming a full-fledged narco-dictatorship, with all aspects of the central government either heavily influenced by or directly incorporated into the burgeoning drug trade. "Drug traffickers have become the leading investors in Burma's new market economy and leading lights in Burma's new political order," says Robert S. Gelbard, an assistant US secretary of state. Burma's decision to weave the drug into its permanent economy has ramifications well beyond its borders. As the flow of heroin out of Burma increases, the drug is sold more cheaply and, as a result, more widely in the United States and elsewhere. Growing, too, is the incidence of AIDS that comes with the habit and its sharing of needles. The problem, evident on US streets, has reached tragic proportions in Burma's neighoring countries.At least 60 percent of the new, pure heroin that finds its way into the veins and nostrils of thousands of young Americans is coming, according to State Department officials, compliments of the military junta that rules Burma. The regime is known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, and it rules the country, which is also known as Myanmar, with an iron fist. Heroin exports from Burma have more than doubled since the SLORC takeover in 1988, according to the State Department."Burma is the world's largest producer of opium poppy by far, particularly since . . . the SLORC took over the country," says Gelbard, and is "responsible for the vast majority of heroin on the streets of the United States."Burma's role in supplying drugs to the world has already made that country the target of a divestment campaign similar to the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s. Ten municipalities, one county and the state of Massachusetts have passed selective purchasing laws against Burma, saying they will not do business with companies that invest there. Sanctions against Burma, approved by President Clinton on April 21, do not affect investments already in place."Drug money is so pervasive in the Burmese economy that it taints legitimate investment," says one State Department official. "Since 1988, some 15 percent of foreign investment in Burma and over half of that from Singapore has been tied to the family of narco-trafficker Lo Hsing Han."Evidence now shows that foreign corporations investing in Burma not only prop up the military junta financially, but they allow for the expansion of the drug trade by providing convenient conduits for money laundering.According to Geopolitical Drugwatch, an international watchdog group in Paris, the SLORC's national oil and gas company - Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprises, or MOGE - has been the main channel for laundering the revenues from heroin exported under the control of the Burmese army. MOGE is in partnership with the US oil company Unocal, Total of France, and a Thai company in building a controversial $1.2 billion gas pipeline in southern Burma.Other US companies are dealing directly with the drug traffickers through a company known as Asia World, which is controlled by the legendary Han. Under pressure from human rights activists, California's Wente Vineyards last November canceled its contract with the company. On April 14, Northwest Airlines, which was offering bonus miles to travelers staying at Rangoon's Traders Hotel co-owned by Asia World, canceled its promotion following protests from activists."That the Burmese economy is based on narco-dollars is quite obvious," says Dr. Sein Win, Prime Minister of Burma's Government in exile. "It is incredible that a US company would promote a business owned by known drug dealers."How, exactly, does Burma's government encourage the drug trade? Consider how the government recently moved to reinforce Han's control over drug trade routes. Last year the government awarded his company the construction rights to a new 102-mile road from Lashio, a city located in the heart of Burma's opium poppy fields, into China. Asia World will be allowed to collect tolls on all vehicles passing along the road. At the same time, Han was awarded a 25-year contract to own and operate a new port out of Rangoon. Taken together, the two contracts reinforce Han's control over the country's drug exports - and his partnership with the military government. Although it is easy for many Americans to measure the drug trade's damage in US terms only, the effect of Burma's drug-driven economy on its neighbors, and on Burma's own civilian population, deserves attention.Since the military junta took over Burma in 1988, levels of drug addiction in China have increased more than seven times. The National Institute on Drug Dependence, based in Beijing, reports that in 1989 there were about 70,000 addicts in China. Six years later, that number had grown to more than 500,000. Zun You, a Chinese social scientist, reports that approximately one in six males from the Kachin ethnic group, on both sides of the border, are injecting drug users. And with that comes AIDS. Indeed, the bulk of China's AIDS cases are clustered along its border with Burma - specifically in three districts in Yunnan Province, according to Dr. Chris Breyer of Johns Hopkins University.Meanwhile, another neighboring country, India, is also seeing a sharp increase in drug use and AIDS along its 1,000 mile border with Burma. Authorities estimate that $1 billion in drugs is transported to India every year on National Highway 39, which connects Central Burma with India. Recent reports indicate that two new drug refineries were opened along the border between Burma and India in order to increase the supply of heroin to India.The northeastern Indian state of Manipur, bordering Burma, had 600 addicts when the SLORC came to power in 1988. As of 1996, according to specialists in the region, there were an estimated 40,000 addicts in the same location. Like China's Yunnan province, Manipur - on the border with Burma, has the worst AIDS epidemic in India. Inside Burma itself, where the poppy explosion is most deeply felt, the twin epidemics of heroin and AIDS are out of control. And SLORC government policy only feeds the problem, according to interviews with Burmese students, AIDS specialists, and Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. "The government appears to be more interested in stamping out political activity than drug addiction," Suu Kyi said recently from her home in Rangoon. "Very few university students on the campus could get away with engaging in political activities, but they seem to be able to get away with taking drugs."That view is seconded by an exiled Burmese college student now studying at the University of Wisconsin. "Our professors told us that the regime would rather have you become heroin addicts than speak against the regime. The heroin explosion is happening with the knowledge, the endorsement, even active encouragement by the state officials."Jade mines owned by the government in northern Burma give their work force the option of being paid in hard drugs rather than cash, according to Benjamin Min, who once worked in the Ministry of Mines. In that remote region, off limits to Westerners, 90 percent of addicts are HIV positive; in the rest of Burma, according to the World Health Organization, the 500,000-plus addicts suffer an HIV infection rate of 60 to 70 percent. Yet the government refuses to allocate money for health services, and downplays the incidence of AIDS In a dark, windowless room hidden in the back of a dingy tea shop in the Burmese city of Mandalay, a recent visitor reported this scene: A junkie shoots heroin into the arms, thighs, and necks of a string of clients using a single needle. The shooter stops occasionally only to wipe the needle with a rag or sharpen it on a stone. Investigators report that up to 200 addicts will use one needle. Another scene, reported by a visitor to the Thai-Burma border, captures the consequences of such practices. "There are regular funerals now, two or three a day, for AIDS victims, where the bodies are cremated. This is many more than a year ago. You can hear firecrackers during the funerals and see clouds of black smoke rising up from the villages. This is because they burn rubber tires with the bodies. They believe that it kills the virus and keeps it from spreading."Narcotics officials estimate that this year's opium poppy harvest from Burma is expected to increase by 10 percent over last years. And the more heroin exported out of Burma, the more that is likely to reach US streets, schools and neighborhoods. Government figures show that the volume of heroin imported into the US, and likewise heroin consumption, has doubled since the mid 1980's.Taking heroin is now too often considered chic; the drug is purer than it used to be, it's easy to get, and a hit can be cheaper than a six pack of beer.An August 1996 report by the National Narcotics Intelligence Consumers Committee - a panel made up of representatives of the 12 federal agencies fighting the drug war - describes New York City as "the largest heroin importation and distribution center in the United States." It says that roughly half of the yearly heroin seizures made in the States occur in the New York City metropolitan area. Janes Intelligence Review reports that the amount of Burmese heroin sold in New York City has tripled since 1989. According to a DEA supervisor in New York, more women have become heroin users in recent years.But the problem is not just New York's. Chicago is suffering its own deluge of heroin, and in San Francisco, law enforcement officials are only half-joking when they say that in some areas it is as easy to buy heroin as cigarettes. In that city, heroin deaths more than doubled from 1991 to 1994.In Boston, Asian heroin is driven up from New York. A Drug Enforcement Administration official in Boston says the agency is redoubling its efforts against heroin, which is blamed for a recent rash of overdose deaths. George Festa, special agent in charge of the DEA New England Field Division, and New England's highest ranking DEA official, says that 13 and 14-year-olds are selling heroin on the streets of Boston. Most, he said, have no idea of the drug's Burmese origins, or the danger it poses."I don't think young people realize that they're dealing with poison," Festa says, "I don't think they realize, going back to Burma, how this stuff is manufactured, the chemicals that are used under unsanitary conditions . . . Many times what you're putting in your nose or into your veins was smuggled into the country in somebody's internal cavities."A version of this article was originally published in the Boston Globe and was written with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.