- The Washington Times - Monday, December 2, 2002

The State Department has a fairly abominable record when it comes to Southeast Asia, and last week brought a reminder of why that is. According to The Washington Post, department officials are close to recommending that the president remove Burma's designation as a major drug-producing country.
Ordinarily we'd chalk up this report to the usual agitation by Foggy Bottom's pro-Burma sect. But informed people in and out of the administration say the ongoing discussions are more serious than in recent years, and spokesmen for the department have declined to dismiss the theory immediately. More disturbingly, in a speech a week ago, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly said that "Burmese cooperation with the international community on narcotics issues has continued to improve in real terms."
If things have gotten better in Burma, that's because the country has no place to go but up. It's true, for instance, that Afghanistan is expected to replace Burma this year as the top opium-producing country. But that has more to do with a rise in production in the post-Taliban steppe than any significant decrease in the Burmese hills. It's true, too, that heroin production has decreased significantly in Burma over the last decade. But that's offset by another trend: The alarming and steady rise in amphetamine production, in which Burma now leads the world. None of these factors makes the case for Burma's removal from the drug-peddlers' list.
But the State Department's certification is premised upon good-faith actions by the government to get tough on drugs the enforcement of money-laundering laws, for example, and efforts to seize drug lords and not necessarily on overall reduction. Still, even by this yardstick, Burma doesn't measure up.
Burma does have a counter-narcotics program that frontline Western officials say appears to operate fairly independently. But they hasten to add that its operations are deliberately small-scale. Token seizures and raids are conducted, but serious traffickers go unimpeded.
That's because the drug racket in Burma is so firmly entrenched that any serious effort to clamp down would purge the junta from top to bottom. In exchange for cease-fire agreements in its unwinnable war against the Wa and Shan tribes in the mid- and late 1990s, the cash-strapped regime agreed to turn a blind eye to their drug-running so long as it received kickbacks. These took the form of taxes and also the establishment of urban laundromats masquerading as legitimate businesses. "The whole thing really works through their banks," a knowledgeable Western official on the Thai-Burmese border told us in August. "Each bank has one large boss behind it, and they make remittances to officials from ill-gotten proceeds."
The problem in Burma isn't drugs; it's the junta itself. But Foggy Bottom can't seem to find its way to this obvious point. In congressional testimony in June, for example, Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Daly said it's possible to "pursue better communication and cooperation with Burma [on drugs] without diminishing our support for political reform and national reconciliation."
That shows a serious lack of judgment. The junta's complicity in the drug trade is part and parcel of its repression. The regime uses its drug money to dig its heels in deeper, upping surveillance on democratic activists in the cities and buying Chinese weapons to stamp out resistance by the republican Chin, Karen and Karenni hill tribes. But the State Department knows this all too well. The last time the U.S. legally gave counter-narcotics money and aid to Burma was in 1988, and the junta used the weaponry to brutally suppress democratic uprisings in Rangoon. Removing the military regime from the drug list could open it up to massive U.S. funding and assistance, and there's no reason to believe the autocrats would act any differently today.
If the junta is serious about getting tough on drugs, it could start by turning over U Khun Sa, a "former" opium lord currently serving time in his mansion in Rangoon. The United States has long sought to extradite Khun Sa, but the regime claims this would violate the terms of his surrender. And the junta, of course, never goes back on its word just ask Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy. After the Burmese people handed her and her party a landslide victory in 1990 elections, the junta refused to cede control and tightened its grip.
According to The Post's survey of "experts," taking Burma off the most-wanted list would be "an important psychological boost for the repressive government." Somehow, we doubt that President Bush is game for pampering the psyches of thugs, and the pro-Burma lobby at State should try being useful for a change. The first step is to affirm unequivocally Burma's position as a world pariah. The second is to dangle goodies to other nations, particularly China and fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), so that they halt their policy of engagement. China's regional ambitions make that a tricky and difficult strategy to pursue, but the cause is good. Murderous thugs have no business strutting the world stage. The State Department should hasten the happy day of their fall.

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