Time to confront Burmese leaders

December 3, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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The article below examines the Thai governments relations with Burmese rulers vis-?vis drug production and trafficking in Burma. The situation applies just as aptly to Singapores dealings with the Burma given the fact that Singapore routinely hangs small-time drug peddlers. Question: To what extent, if at all, does the PAP Government pressurize the generals running Burma to crack down on drug barons producing and trafficking heroin and methamphetamines, drugs that eventually end up in the hands of Singapores youngsters?

Bangkok Post
4 November 2003

When Thaksin Shinawatra sits down with General Khin Nyunt next Monday in the former Burmese royal capital of Pagan, it is, diplomatically speaking, a meeting of political equals. The two are prime ministers of their respective countries.

In fact, the totally different political systems mean that an all powerful Thai premier will be talking with a Burmese prime minister who is answerable to a military junta in which his exact place and power are somewhat unclear. In any case, Monday’s meeting offers a golden opportunity to broach serious problems between the two countries. Mr. Thaksin must not allow the conversation to turn into a photo opportunity that lets Burma off the hook on important issues.

Ever since he assumed office by landslide election, the continuing foreign policy and security problem for Mr. Thaksin’s government has been drugs. The week he took office, the prime minister set in motion a chain of actions against drug traffickers. He has done about all any leader could do to battle the tide of methamphetamines and heroin. But the drug barons remain poised on the Thai border, they continue to do business in Thailand, and they continue to threaten the health of Thai youth and the moral integrity of the country.

Although he will declare Thai provinces officially drug free next month, no one believes Mr. Thaksin has won the metaphorical war on drugs. And the reason for that is Burma. After all the crackdowns, the terrible anti-judicial killings, the education campaigns and the tight strictures on Bangkok discos and nightclubs, drug trafficking is alive and often well.

The United Wa State Army and its leaders are close to Gen Khin Nyunt, and he has defended the Wa as a peaceful and law abiding ethnic group in Burma. That may be true. But the UWSA and its leaders are not. Several, most notably the notorious and violent Wei Hsueh-kang, are wanted in Thailand and other countries. Here is the challenge Mr. Thaksin must put to his Burmese counterpart: If Burma shields fugitive drug traffickers, Thailand will be forced to draw the conclusion that Rangoon is acting in a threatening manner.

In recent months, Burma has begun slowly to cooperate with the foreign community on suppressing heroin traffic. This is highly encouraging. This progress, however, can only be compared with the total lack of public action against methamphetamine making and smuggling. A methamphetamines suppression programme would arrest Wei and his crime lieutenants.

By happy coincidence, Gen Khin Nyunt is the designated junta point man on dealing with the political opposition. Mr. Thaksin must insist and stress that Thailand and the civilized world community demand the release of popular leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and measurable cooperation with the United Nations and others to bring democracy to Burma. For its part, the junta should realize the Thaksin government is the best friend it will ever have and it is lucky at that.

The generals may complain of injustice, but the American and European sanctions will continue and grow tougher as long as Rangoon mistreats its citizens. Life will not get easier for Burma or its autocratic rulers. It is in everyone’s interest to proceed towards an inevitable democratic future at speed. This could ease sanctions and end the threat of violence that dictatorships always cause.

Gen Khin Nyunt may not believe Mr. Thaksin and Thailand can operate as honest brokers in Burma. But he should believe Thailand couldnt support continued protection of drug trafficking and violence towards Burmese citizens. Gen Khin Nyunt and his allies in the Rangoon junta deserve honest words about common problems.