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What Burma Wants: Recognition and Helicopters

OFFICIALS in Burma complain that they are in the midst of a significant antidrug campaign but that it is being ignored by most of the world, particularly the United States.

The US cut off all aid to Burma, including extensive joint drug-fighting assistance, in 1988 as a result of major human rights violations committed by the ruling junta while crushing antiregime demonstrations.

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Now, the military government suggests that the US should reconsider its aid ban in light of recent anti-opium measures undertaken in Burma. The government says it has eradicated 40,000 acres of poppy fields in the past year. Western diplomats in the capital, Rangoon, acknowledge that some eradication has taken place, but the envoys say they are unable to verify how much has been destroyed.

Analysts suggest that if 40,000 acres had been destroyed, as the government claims, opium production for the year would fall substantially. No such fall has been seen, they say.

Government officials counter that there has been a significant decline in opium production, but the US and other nations are ignoring it. "Since 1995, there have been many seizures and we managed to destroy a lot of [clandestine heroin] refineries. I think this is an indication that we are seriously doing our work," says Maj. Gen. Siha Sura Tin Aung, a regional Army commander.

At the core of their request, Burmese officials are seeking equipment from the US that they say will help them to wage a more effective war on drugs. "We are ready to do any kind of suppression to the drug traffickers," says U Hla Thann, a Ministry of Defense official who is also director of a company that seeks to attract new investors to Burma. He says that among its stepped up enforcement efforts, the government would resume an aerial opium-eradication spraying operation that had been conducted with US help prior to the 1988 aid cutoff. In particular, officials say, they need helicopters, surveillance planes, support arms, including rocket launchers, night vision goggles, satellite navigation equipment, and thermal imaging sensors.

Some Burma analysts say any new equipment would be used to fight insurgent armies seeking autonomy from the central government and to strengthen the junta's grip on power rather than to stop opium traffickers.

At present the full extent of US-Burma cooperation on drug trafficking matters involves the sharing of Drug Enforcement Administration intelligence information with Burmese officials. The US government maintains it will not consider lifting existing sanctions until the ruling generals make significant progress toward achieving democratic rule and recognizing human rights.

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