Category Archives: Cold War

Looking ahead to Obama’s September visit to Laos

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As the Obama Administration looks to add the finishing touches to its five year Rebalance to Asia, it is likely to continue to capitalizing on building ties to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  The Obama Administration has worked tirelessly, particularly over the last four years, towards improving bilateral and multilateral ties with ASEAN.  It has sent more high-level visits to ASEAN member states than its predecessors, had a visible presence in improving security relations with most ASEAN countries, and held the first U.S.-hosted ASEAN summit in Sunnylands last February.  And as a final feather in Obama’s cap, he’ll be the first president to visit to Laos this coming September

The visit to the small Southeast Asian country may seem minor in the current geopolitical climate; however, it is far more important in the long run.  Laos is tiny with only 6 million people earning on average just over $1000 per year, but the premise of the U.S. Rebalance has always been to re-engage with Asian countries wholesale in an effort to bolster the region.  Through Laos, the Obama Administration can solidify its objectives and spur a more holistic relationship with ASEAN.  In other words, the President’s upcoming visit to Laos represents the essence of the U.S. Rebalance to Asia as a whole.

On the surface, improving relations with Laos seems daunting.  Laos is beset by many problems in addition to economic development challenges, ranging from a lack of infrastructure to being a central thoroughfare for the region’s illicit trade network.  Historically, the U.S.-Lao bilateral relationship has been rather rocky.  Traditionally, policymakers have worked to curb relations with Laos’s Communist government that was deigned partially responsible for the U.S.’s defeat in Vietnam.  US Congress protested Laos’s entry to the WTO and criticized the Lao government’s lack of good policies to protect the Hmong minority, whose diaspora forms key constituencies in congressional districts in states like California and Minnesota.

Yet, it is because of these hurdles in the U.S. bilateral relationship that make Laos an ideal candidate for furthering the regional pivot.  The U.S. Rebalance is concerned with building bridges and opening channels to promote greater collusion between the U.S. and the whole region.  This entails reaching out to all of Asia and finding chains that can potentially help the U.S. and intra-Asian growth.  Properly mending relationships to promote a greater relationship promotes a sustainable future.  Furthering U.S. engagement with Laos will ensure the legacy of the Rebalance beyond the current administration.  To do so, the President should confront two significant regional issues: food security and UXO.

First, in conjunction with the President’s September visit, the Administration should establish new policies to improve Laos’ food security.  Laos experiences some of the highest nutritional deficiencies, child mortality, and maternal mortality in Southeast Asia. To assist with Laos’s food security problem, the Administration could build on successful frameworks for cooperation already in place.  Thus, USAID provides programs to supplement good nutrition and improve regional capacity building through the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI).  A joint effort from the Department of Defense, the Oregon Health Science University, and the Lao University of Health Sciences created the Lao American Nutrition Institute (LANI).  LANI hopes to revitalize agricultural growth knowledge and practices in Laos.  In spurring this effort, the Obama Administration can establish sustainable development policies and build capacity within the Lao government on programs that benefit the whole of Laos’ population.

Second, it is paramount for the Obama Administration to resolve the long debilitating unexploded ordnances (UXOs) in Laos.  The small munitions left over from the U.S.’ Secret Bombing Campaign over Laos (1964-1973) still saturate much of the countryside and pose a threat to the country’s agriculture and young, vulnerable population.  UXOs have been a front row issue in the prior visits by high profile Cabinet members.  Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, highlighted the UXO issue during his visit in November 2015.  As a Vietnam veteran, Secretary John Kerry expressed his sincerest wishes towards properly handling the issue and bringing closure to the UXO issue during his visit to Laos in January 2016.  Obama would benefit from boosting UXO removal efforts as prescribed by lawmakers.  Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), has promoted responsible and effective strategies in removing UXOs as well as a deep concern that the U.S. owns up to the Secret Bombing Campaign over Laos by seeing that the country becomes completely UXO free.  Regardless of the approach, Obama should set a definite tone over UXOs in the upcoming visit.  Taking responsibility to end the UXO threat for good improves the U.S.’ standing in the region and will move the agenda of the Rebalance forward.

In his final months, President Obama will be setting the finishing touches on what has been a major foreign policy effort.  Above all, Obama would like to set the tone of being invested in improving the whole of Asia, exemplified through a serious responsibility to improving Laos’ development and correcting past US foreign policy decisions that proved detrimental to the region.  Laos will be Obama’s chance to set the record straight and cement a sturdy framework for constructive engagement with the region.  With this framework, future presidents will be encouraged to do the same: embrace Asia as a whole and continue an approach toward capacity building that ensures a brighter future.

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Filed under ASEAN, Cold War, Food, Laos, Regional Relations, SLIDER, US Rebalance, USA

Improving the US-Laos relationship through UXO cleanup

UXO Lao clearance operators use a loop detector to scan for sub-surface munitions. Photo: Cluster Munition Coalition

UXO Lao clearance operators use a loop detector to scan for sub-surface munitions. Photo: Cluster Munition Coalition

The recent leadership change in Laos and the country’s tenure as chair of ASEAN mean that now is an ideal time for the U.S. to step up engagement.  This dynamic situation gives U.S. policymakers room to pursue important goals in sustainable development and hydropower on the Mekong.  To do so, the U.S. must overcome significant hurdles.  Historically, Washington has seen little need to engage with the small, landlocked, and communist country that reminds the U.S. of struggles during the Vietnam War.  In 1997, Congress opposed Laos’ entrance to the WTO over marginalization of the Hmong minority.  Above all, the U.S.’s wartime legacy issues have been detrimental.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. saturated Laos with cluster bombs, leaving dangerous remnants throughout the countryside.  Unexploded ordnances (UXOs) continue to injure and kill, hindering Laos’ development.  Yet, even with these obstacles, the political climate is ideal.  The U.S. government should aim for better engagement with Laos by committing to economic development and accountability in UXO removal.

Laos, as Southeast Asia’s fastest growing country, has shown positive movement in its own economic development, but major improvements are lacking. Timber and copper exports have generated a steady source of revenue.  USAID development projects in the agricultural and sustainable livelihood sectors are bringing Laos within reach of middle income status by 2020.  Newly designated Prime Minister, Thongloun Sisoulith, has expressed a desire to capitalize on emerging opportunities and open Laos to more intra-ASEAN trade and tourism.  Smart investment efforts ensure a brighter future for Laos, yet the country is still very poor and hindered by more complex issues.

Laos lies at the intersection of the Golden Triangle, an illicit drug trading center that undermines good economies.  Nutrition is a major problem.  44% of children in Laos are malnourished and 27% are underweight.  Moreover, an estimated 70% of Laos’ population is under the age of 30.  At best, present day Laos is in a state of transition.  Laos requires capacity building initiatives to improve continuing development strategies.  However, economic development in Laos is not a quick fix as issues literally under the surface threaten Laos’ human security.

The toll of unexploded ordnance on Laos’s security and development is significant.  From 1964 to 1973, according to Lao’s National Regulatory Authority for UXO, over 50,000 Lao citizens were injured by UXO from 1969 to 2008.  The most prominent casualties ranged farmers and children doing everyday essential activities, everything from building a fire to playing in a field.  Travel through rural areas is noticeably dangerous, as casualties during cross-country travel are frequent.  UXOs have dangerously outlived their purpose.  At the start of the secret bombings over Laos, soldiers were the predominant UXO victims. Now agricultural workers and children comprise over 80% of quantifiable post-conflict victims up to 2008.  Their injuries increasingly lead to amputation or death.

Pile of defused ordnance used for scrap metal in Laos. Photo: MAG

Pile of defused ordnance used for scrap metal in Laos. Photo: MAG

UXOs are an inherent threat to Laos’ human security and economic development.  UXO contamination can render lands unusable, much to the detriment of the Lao economy.  The care and treatment for UXO victims adversely affects Laos’ public health and labor resources.  Simply put, Laos’ continued growth cannot happen with UXOs strewn across the country.  Development strategies that fail to address the UXO issue may cause Laos’ future prospects may flounder.  UXOs are an impediment to the comprehensive growth strategy that Laos requires.  A vulnerable population is less likely to improve its capacity for development.  The UXO problem is a chronic barrier plaguing a country looking to take a major step in its development.  Continuing UXO contamination weakens Lao citizens’ prospects for a sustainable future.

Yet, the UXO threat may be gone in the future, as ongoing diplomatic engagement is paving the way for enhanced U.S.-Laos engagement.  High profile visits have improved amity between the two nations.  Laos has hosted more senior members of the U.S. government in a recent five year span than in the last twenty years put together.

President Obama is set to be the first U.S. president to visit Laos in September.  In addition to the high profile visits, the U.S. government has pledged enriched development output to Laos in the form of improving nationwide nutrition and education.  During his recent visit to Laos, Secretary Kerry announced that the U.S. would provide $6 million for school meals to supplement children’s daily nutrition and even pledged $19.5 million for weapons removal and abatement.

FSD deminer Mr Dasone Sitthipone working with a detector at a UXO clearance area, begins excavating an unidentified object. Photo: Australia DFAT

FSD deminer Mr Dasone Sitthipone working with a detector at a UXO clearance area, begins excavating an unidentified object. Photo: Australia DFAT

Moving forward, the U.S. should build on the framework set by these visits.  Fundamentally, working towards development goals in Laos improves U.S.-Laos bilateral relations, which in turn improve the U.S.’s access to the Mekong and the prospect for sustainable livelihoods on the Mekong.  Fostering a renewed relationship with Laos is a core value of the U.S.-Rebalance.  If the U.S. is to truly gain access to Asia’s dynamism, it must engage with all members of ASEAN.  Bolstering Laos is a smaller but important step toward improving ASEAN’s resiliency.

In any case, cleaning up war legacy issues must be high on the U.S.’s policy goals.  Above all, UXO removal is a moral imperative, and the U.S. is uniquely equipped towards removing the UXO.  As the responsible party for saturating Laos with cluster bombs, the U.S. is accountable in cleaning its remains.  In the waning months of the Obama Administration, the U.S. government has the potential to properly re-engage in Southeast Asia.  By taking a vested interest in Laos’ development through and with UXO removal, the U.S. is laying the path back to Southeast Asia.  Interestingly enough, the contentious issue that separated these countries for so long can become the key issue that brings the closer together.

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Filed under Cold War, Current Events, Laos, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Uncategorized, USA

Myanmar fighting escalates, tens of thousands flee into China

mynamar fighting

As fighting in Myanmar grew more intense near the Sino-Burmese border during Spring Festival, media reports became increasingly confused and alarming. Clashes between rebels and government forces in Shan State reportedly claimed the combined lives of more than 100 combatants on both sides. The ramp-up in hostilities has also forced tens of thousands of Burmese civilians to flee their rural villages for refuge in China.

Fighting that first broke out on February 9, and included air and artillery strikes by the Burmese army in Kokang, have led to protracted bouts of guerrilla warfare. Estimates place the number of dead in the violence between 70 and 130, and media reports are unclear how many of these are soldiers or civilians.

However, a spokesman for the Myanmar Defense Ministry, Lieutenant General Mya Htun Oo, wasquoted in the Hindustan Times as saying “the conflict had killed 61 military and police officers and around 72 insurgents”. Red Cross officials have also said humanitarian workers in the region have been attacked twice in the past week. The Burmese military has declared three months of martial law in Kokang, although how well such a policy can be enforced remains unclear.

Skirmishes have been most intense near the Burmese town of Laukkai, or Laogai. The village, now described as a “ghost town”, is located on the Salween River — known in Chinese as theNujiang. The refugees sought shelter in Yunnan’s Lincang Prefecture and were first thought to number a few thousand. However, Red Cross workers in Myanmar now claim at least 30,000 people have made the crossing, raising fears both inside and outside China of a looming humanitarian crisis.

The embattled Kokang region is a semi-autonomous part of northeastern Myanmar. Although the national government in Naypyidaw asserts titular control of the area, 90 percent of the local population claim Chinese descent and identify ethnically as Han Chinese. The rebel army now fighting Burmese troops is called the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and is headed by former members of the country’s defunct Communist Party.

No official reason has been given for the escalation in violence in Kokang, although it seems likely connected to December ambushes by guerrillas that killed at least seven Burmese soldiers and injured 20 others. As the conflict continues, both sides have presented their own narratives. Burmese military spokesmen have gone so far as to accuse the rebels of employing Chinese mercenaries in an attempt at complete self rule — a charge the guerrillas and Beijing have vociferously denied.

Also at stake for both the Kokang and Burmese authorities are lucrative, if unofficial, trade routes in the area. China’s border with Myanmar is extremely porous, and around Kokang is notorious for booming illicit trafficking of illegally logged timber, rare animals, jade and narcotics.

This article by  was first posted on the GoKunming on 

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Filed under ASEAN, China, Cold War, Current Events, ethnic policy, Foreign policy, Myanmar/Burma, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Yunnan Province

Review: Hun Sen’s Cambodia

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It is now 36 years since the end of the Khmer Rouge regime that all but destroyed the Cambodian nation, decimated its most educated people, and reduced the country to year zero.

Amazingly, the young foreign minister who emerged from the debris in 1979 is still in power.

Hun Sen, then a gaunt-looking 27-year-old, was drafted from the obscurity of a Vietnamese camp for Cambodian dissidents and defectors to serve in the newly installed Heng Samrin government. His parents were poor rice farmers. He entered politics without any diplomas or degrees. From the world’s youngest foreign minister in 1979, he currently ranks as the region’s longest-serving prime minister.

Two years after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge regime,world's youngest foreign minister emerges from the genocidal darkness of the oppressive regime. Photo copyright: Tom Fawthrop

Two years after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge regime,world’s youngest foreign minister emerges from the genocidal darkness of the oppressive regime. Photo copyright: Tom Fawthrop

 

Hun Sen’s Cambodia by Sebastian Strangio, a former journalist with the Phnom Penh Post, helps to fill a number of historical gaps in charting the rise of Hun Sen through the 1980s to the 2013 elections. The young foreign minister was a fast learner. Appointed prime minister in 1985, Hun Sen soon boldly charted an end to the civil war. In 1989 he gave the country a new name — the State of Cambodia — as well as a new flag and constitution, and shrewdly paved the way for an eventual peace settlement in Paris.

Unfortunately, Strangio’s attempt to record recent Cambodian history is marred by an obsessive desire to view every topic through same prism: the legacy of UNTAC — the UN peacekeeping mission (1991-93). Also pervasive is the author’s conviction that in every field Cambodia’s achievements are nothing more than a “mirage.”

A confident Hun Sen already the prime minister ,dares to swim in a Kampot river in spite of Khmer Rouge insurgents still active less than  25km away.

A confident Hun Sen already the prime minister ,dares to swim in a Kampot river in spite of Khmer Rouge insurgents still active less than 25km away. Photo copyright: Tom Fawthrop

Cambodian Reform

Cambodia has clearly made great progress in the last 30 years.

The nation was reborn in the 1980s. Peace returned in 1999. Cambodia long ago lost its regular place on TV news as one of the world’s most dangerous war zones. The magic of the ancient temples of Angkor and the nation’s cultural revival now once again captivate visitors. Both tourism and the garments industry have fueled economic growth.

Moreover, Cambodia is less repressive than many ASEAN governments, including Thailand and its cycle of military coups. Yet, according to Strangio, multiparty elections offer only a “mirage of democracy.”

In Cambodia’s last election, Hun Sen’s ruling party suffered a stunning loss of 22 seats, with the united opposition coming in a strong second with 55 seats in a national parliament of 123 members.

It’s too soon to dub this a “Phnom Penh Spring,” but Cambodia’s political diversity is more than just a mirage, particularly in comparison to the long-serving prime ministerial reigns ofMahathir Mohamad in Malaysia (22 years) and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew (31 years). Malaysia and Singapore have never tolerated the strikes, protest rallies, and vociferous opposition that are all welcome features of Cambodian political life.

Cambodia, according to Strangio, was the nation where the UN and Western aid lavished billions of dollars on peacekeeping, implanting liberal democracy and human rights. The author assumes that Cambodia could make a smooth and rapid transition from the genocide and cruel deprivation of the 1980s to a shining beacon of democracy today. Of course that fantasy has not happened. The author concludes that the ruthless intransigence of Hun Sen and his ruling party, abetted by a traditional Cambodian resilience to foreign mentors of all ideologies, thwarted the allegedly benign, well-meaning Western efforts since the end of the Cold War to create a democratic success story.

In so doing, the author fails to detect a “mirage” of a different nature that did not come from any Cambodian failures, but can be squarely laid at the door of Western nations sitting in the UN Security Council.

Flaws of Peacekeeping

The UNTAC peacekeeping operation has been widely hailed as a great success story that ended the Cambodia conflict and ushered in a putative new democracy.

The UN-run election in 1993 did help implant democracy in Cambodia. However, the author glosses over the failure of UN peacekeeping and Western nations to get rid of the Khmer Rouge bases sustained and supported by the Royal Thai Army in blatant violation of the 1991 Paris Peace treaty.

From 1993-1998, the Pol Pot nightmare continued to haunt the fragile new state. The Khmer Rouge still controlled the gem-rich border province of Pailin and Anlong Veng to the north. They still planted landmines and burned down remote villages that defied them.

The war continued because the United States, France, and the UK all gave a much higher priority to preserving their deep military and trading ties with Thailand than putting pressure on this important ally and its military to sever the supply lines to the outlawed Khmer Rouge.

It was an elected Cambodian government led by Hun Sen — and not the UN — that finally eliminated the Khmer Rouge insurgency. On this point the book accepts that many voters in the 2003 election felt relief the war was finally over and rewarded the government with a strong mandate. Having secured the peace where the UN had failed, Hun Sen reached the zenith of his popularity at home.

In 2003, I wrote that if Hun Sen had retired around this time, his achievements and his legacy would have outweighed his dark side. But since peace and stability returned to Cambodia, corruption and looting of natural resources have boomed, with the prime minister’s close associates as the main beneficiaries.

The book rightly points out that 20 years of Western aid has only spawned an aid-addicted dependency. But Hun Sen hardly invented crony capitalism, corrupt patronage, or the skimming off of foreign aid.

The World Bank’s neoliberal development model of sweeping privatization and starving the public sector of any significant aid has also encouraged or tolerated cronyism in the scramble over newly privatized assets and the mass eviction of the urban poor. The opposition has failed to offer a real alternative to Hun Sen’s adoption of the neoliberal model of development designed by the World Bank. Neither side has come up with policies that could narrow the yawning gap between rich and poor.

Hun Sen must take a lot of responsibility for the ugly side of Cambodian development. But the book’s depiction of Western government aid as always benign and benevolent suffers from a lack of critical questioning.

Transitional Justice

Strangio dismisses the landmark trial of a few surviving leaders from the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime — Asia’s first case of international justice — as just another deception.

But the complex UN-backed tribunal brought together local and international lawyers and judges based on a UN partnership with the Cambodian authorities. Many cynics predicted that the trial would never take place. Whatever the shortcomings of this legal process, millions of Cambodians belatedly experienced a very real justice. They finally saw Pol Pot’s chief accomplices held to account, given a fair trial, and convicted of crimes against humanity.

According to UN legal expert Lars Olsen, Cambodian participation in the process exceeded that for all previous international justice courts. In addition to the 500 Cambodians who filled the public gallery day after day, they also participated as victims and litigants known as “civil parties.” Most victims have expressed some satisfaction that the tribunal brought a sense of accountability, closure, and justice.

That Cambodia was brave enough to face its tragic history should alone command international respect. Indonesia is still afraid to document and investigate the skulls in its own cupboard: the massive bloodbath in 1965-66, with an estimated 900,000 dead, and the subsequent atrocities in East Timor.

If the United States and its allies had not helped the Khmer Rouge hang on to Cambodia’s seat in the UN General Assembly and blocked the credentials of the Heng Samrin government, this genocide tribunal could have taken place more than 25 years ago, as Hun Sen proposed in 1986. As it is, the ongoing tribunal is a case of far better late than never.

Why has Hun Sen, a leader from such humble origins, subsequently turned his back on the poor majority of Cambodians and their cry for land and justice? What kind of egomania has driven him to want to remain prime minister until the age of 72?

Strangio should have put these questions to Hun Sen in an interview.

Yet despite five years of commendable research, Strangio’s book doesn’t rely on any interviews with his prime subject. So we never get any of the answers that might have truly illuminated Hun Sen’s character, or any deeper insights in why he has chosen the path of electorally sanctioned authoritarianism and feudal-style patronage — a hallmark of the 1960s under the rule of Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

Tom Fawthrop is a frequent contributor to ExSE.  He directed a Cambodian film Dreams and Nightmares broadcast on UK Channel 4 in 1989 and has interviewed Hun Sen on three occasions. He is also co-author of the book ‘ Getting away with Genocide?”  Pluto Books 2004.

This review was originally posted here on the FPIF website on February 15, 2015 and is reposted with the permission of the author.  

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Filed under ASEAN, Cambodia, Cold War, Current Events, Economic development, Reviews, SLIDER

The Illicit Drug Industry & Counter-Narcotics in Southeast Asia

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Drug enforcement officials in Burma. Image: The Irrawaddy

On 5 October 2011, when Thai river police investigated reported gunshots on the middle reaches of the Mekong River, they discovered two cargo vessels and their 12 Chinese crew members, all of whom had been executed and their bodies dumped in the river. The ships were determined to have been hijacked to transport illicit cargo, and they contained over 920,000 amphetamine tablets, locally referred to as yaba, which were subsequently confiscated by Thai authorities.

Over the past 70 years stories like this have become commonplace in the notorious Golden Triangle, a delta area at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak Rivers that takes up approximately 150,000 square kilometers of land in the tri-state Thai, Lao and Burmese (Myanmar) border region. Drug production and trafficking has brought this locality to international infamy, and it remains the world’s second largest cultivator of opium poppy, second only to Afghanistan. Faced with rising heroin and amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS) addiction levels, drug-related violence, and an expanding HIV epidemic, Southeast Asian governments have recently begun to intensify their efforts to combat this endemic problem. Using bilateral agreements and the frameworks of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), and the Asian Regional Forum (ARF), actions by these governments have met varying levels of success.

 

Colonial Roots of the Southeast Asian Drug Trade

Opium poppy is native to the lush and remote Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces of China’s southwest. For hundreds of years small-scale cultivation by hill tribes in the region met the modest needs of Chinese opium-smokers, but in the early 19th century a powerful competitor arrived in Southeast Asia: the British Empire and its waves of merchants and imperialists, all trying to find new markets for seemingly unlimited supplies of India-grown opium. At the humiliating conclusion of the 1842 Opium War the British forced the Chinese emperor to accept opium imports, thereby unleashing one of the most devastating drug epidemics in history: a mere thirty years later, British opium imports were supplying an estimated 15 million Chinese opium addicts.

Social upheaval in China during the 19th and 20th century caused massive emigration of Chinese refugees to all parts of the world, and where they went, their opium habits followed. The large Chinese immigrant populations in Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam provided lucrative opportunities for the opium industry, and despite the protests of indigenous rulers, one by one state-mandated opium franchises were forced into being by British and French imperialists. It was also in this time that fleeing Chinese merchants and hill tribe people arrived in the Golden Triangle area and introduced poppy cultivation to the local populations.

In British Burma, the imperialist government lacked the ability to administer the western Shan States and so instead provided them with autonomy in exchange for loyalty. This autonomy provided a foundation for a thriving opium economy and a fiercely independent political consciousness, both of which would have strong legacies long after the British withdrawal. In French Indochina, the government-run Opium Monopoly worked industriously to incorporate Laotian poppy-growing hill tribes, and helped to sponsor the Yunnan-Tonkin railway, which provided a valuable link to the well-established opium cultivators of southwest China.

 

Colonial Events Timeline

In the years following World War II, almost all of the world’s major opium producers, the largest being Turkey, Iran, and India, brought an end to their legal opium exports to Southeast Asia, which created an enormous vacuum in the opium industry. Newly Communist China, independent Burma, and restored French Indochina all cracked down on local production, further choking supply. Eradication of the drug industry was not achieved however, primarily thanks to the actions of Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) remnants in northern Burma, the corrupt Thai National Police Force, and the French and American covert intelligence agencies.

About 1,500 battered KMT troops entered Burma in 1949, fleeing the advance of the People’s Liberation Army into Yunnan Province. This weak force was nearly crushed by the Burmese army, but in 1950 they began receiving airdrops of weapons from the CIA, which was frantic to arm groups on the southern borders of the People’s Republic of China in case Mao Zedong had expansionist ambitions. Reinforced by additional troops flown in from Taiwan, the empowered KMT army executed several failed invasions to retake Yunnan, but afterward decided to remain in northern Burma and hold the line against the Communist threat. This well-armed army proceeded to force the local tribes-people into opium cultivation, and with the help of the corrupt Thai police force, created one of the most robust drug production and trafficking systems in history.

Opium produced in northern and eastern Burma was transported across the Thai border and down to Bangkok, where it was exported out of the rest of Southeast Asia. In 1961, provoked by aggressive expansionism on the part of the KMT, the Burmese Army and the PLA jointly ousted the Nationalists from Burma and forced them into Thailand and Laos, where their communities remain today. Although the KMT forces no longer directly controlled the opium cultivation, the system was in place and ethnic Chinese, then later various Burmese insurgent traffickers, maintained the lucrative trafficking network into Thailand.

 

Drug enforcement officials in Burma. Image: Business Week

Drug enforcement officials in Burma. Image: Business Week

In French Indochina, the under-financed French intelligence community covertly took over management of the formally illegal opium trade in order to continue their efforts in suppressing Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh. The Laotian opium industry that they nourished would later find its greatest successes during the American GI heroin epidemic of the Second Indochina Conflict, and following that, in its international spread into the continental US and Europe.

Currently, the vast majority of Southeast Asian illicit narcotics are produced in the semi-autonomous, rebel-administered eastern states of Burma, while smaller amounts also come from the remote areas of western Laos and northern Thailand. It is trafficked in two main routes: the southern route goes through Thailand to Bangkok for distribution, and the northern route enters China’s Yunnan Province, headed for Kunming and then all of East Asia. Recently, Golden Triangle supply has been unable to keep up with skyrocketing Asian demand for heroin and ATS, and approximately one third of East and Southeast Asia’s narcotics now originate in Afghanistan.

map

Source: UNODC Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2013: Lao PDR, Myanmar

 

Temporarily successful eradication programs and sustained crackdowns brought Southeast Asian drug production to a historical low in 2006, but since then there has been a consistent increase in cultivation, production, trafficking, and consumption, with levels returning to those of the 1970s and 1980s. This steady expansion of the drug trade is occurring despite a 2005 self-imposed opium cultivating ban in the territories of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Burma, a rebel group that previously accounted for the lion’s share of Burma’s opium production. This worrying trend has many consequences for Southeast Asian society.

 

Threats Posed by the Illicit Drug Industry

The streaming supply of narcotics from the Golden Triangle into China and Thailand has negative impacts on myriad areas of Southeast Asian life. Mass drug addiction and drug trafficking causes the breakup of families and increases in crime rates, spreads diseases like HIV, burdens the economy through lost productivity, imposes financial costs on the state, spreads law enforcement thin, overwhelms justice systems, encourages corruption, and funds violent groups. As production continues to increase, these problems are becoming more pronounced and demand strong preventative action.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that an average of 13% of injected-drug users are HIV positive, and more than half have hepatitis C. Coupled with China’s annually growing number of registered opioid users (official figures reported 1.3 million users in 2012, with actual rates likely almost double that), this situation makes the threat of a massive HIV epidemic in the world’s largest country ever more likely. Recent trends in China suggest that methamphetamine use is slowly overtaking heroin use as China’s most problematic drug, and just in China 228 meth labs were dismantled in 2012. Widespread amphetamine use continues to be a regional dilemma, as more than 8,980,000 people in East and Southeast Asian used ATS tablets in 2013. The Greater Mekong Subregion has the highest rate of crystal meth use in the world, and this drug use is exacting large tolls on society, as addiction-fueled crime expands and as families and communities spend time and resources helping addicts.

Number of Heroin Users 2010

Source: UNODC Transnational Organized Crime in East Asia and the Pacific: a Threat Assessment, April 2013

The criminals and insurgents that operate the drug trade are making enormous windfalls from their work: the value of all consumed East and Southeast Asian heroin was estimated at $16.3 billion USD in 2011, with methamphetamine and amphetamine consumption valued at an additional $15 billion USD. The traffickers and their associates encompass a wide variety of individuals: ethnic Chinese syndicates, Nigerian and Iranian criminal groups, high-ranking Southeast Asian officials and military personnel, and Burmese insurgent and paramilitary forces. Although on average 50,000 people are arrested each year for trafficking illicit narcotics in Southeast Asia, the high profits of the drug trade continue to lure thousands more into the business. In the case of Burmese fighters, drug earnings are usually spent on weapons, helping to intensify violence in those areas.

drug market value

Source: UNODC Transnational Organized Crime in East Asia and the Pacific: a Threat Assessment, April 2013

Some of the drug trade’s worst victims are the poverty-stricken opium cultivators in the Golden Triangle. Lacking other economic opportunities and desperate for income, many rural farmers are forced into dealings with violent traffickers and become trapped in a cycle of drug cultivation, slowly becoming more and more dependent on poppy income. They are prevented from growing crops that can benefit society, and oftentimes their communities are hit hard by addiction. Unfortunately, these rural villagers only make up a small portion of the people whose lives are destroyed by the drug trade.

 

International Cooperation and Efforts to Eliminate the Drug Industry

The governments of Southeast Asia have been working to combat the narcotics trade ever since their post-colonial independence, but unfortunately the vast majority of these efforts have been restricted to unilateral measures. Law enforcement is usually by definition national in character, but the drug trade is a transnational and regional problem, and increased cooperation on the part of Southeast Asian governments is critical for its sustainable reduction.

Thanks in large part to the prodding of the US government, which had recently declared its own War on Drugs, the 1976 ASEAN Bali Summit saw the adoption of the “ASEAN Declaration of Principles to Combat the Abuses of Narcotics Drugs.” Although mainly filled with rhetoric and containing few concrete measures, this declaration showed consensus among the ASEAN governments and kicked off the modern wave of counter-narcotics policies in Southeast Asia.

Thailand can be considered one of the more successful cases of sustainable reduction in illicit cultivation. Starting in 1984, the Thai government embarked on a 30-year intensive program of crop replacement, which has resulted in bringing opium cultivation in northern Thailand to negligible levels.

In contrast, the efforts of Burma’s Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control have been snared in the frequently contradicting objectives of the government’s anti-insurgent policy. Despite the ambitious 1999 declaration by the ruling regime to eliminate all illicit drug production by 2014, the Burmese government often turns a blind eye towards the narcotics industry in its efforts to co-opt various rebel groups. In the 1980s and 1990s the weak central government began signing ceasefire agreements with the numerous insurgent armies that control the Burmese borderlands, and many of those autonomy-granting agreements contained clauses permitting (and even encouraging) drug cultivation and production by the groups in exchange for their loyalty to the regime. Subsequently, drug enforcement policy became a tool of the state, and it was used both as a carrot and a stick to bring insurgent groups into the legal fold. When a United States grand jury indicted several leaders of the United Wa State Army, which had signed a ceasefire agreement and was the largest Burmese opium producer in the early 2000s, the government refused to arrest them or crack down on their illegal businesses. This lack of enforcement can be seen as a way of repayment for loyalty, and is in direct contrast to the government’s actions towards the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). The MNDAA, another major opium producer, had refused to make peace with the government, and when the government attacked them in 2009, drug enforcement was the justification given. These two examples show how the central regime manipulates drug policy to its advantage in its state-building efforts, and explains the lack of sustained progress in eliminating the narcotics industry.

 

ASEAN response timeline            In addition to the unilateral efforts of individual states, regional organizations and agreements have been crucial to the evolution of drug enforcement in the Golden Triangle. In the late 1990s, ASEAN began examining anti-narcotics and other issues such as human trafficking and smuggling in the context of transnational crime, and started putting greater emphasis on regional cooperation. The expansion of ASEAN in 1997 to include the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the Union of Myanmar allowed the other ASEAN governments to exert more diplomatic pressure on the newcomers to clean up their drug exporting regions, demonstrated in the ASEAN Declaration on Transnational Crime. Although the declaration contained no binding measures, it set up several communication and monitoring bodies, including the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (AMMTC), the ASEAN Chiefs of National Police (ASEANAPOL) and the ASEAN Senior Officials on Drug Matters (ASOD). These bodies mainly monitor the progress of the 2000 Bangkok Political Declaration in Pursuit of a Drug-Free ASEAN 2015, but they also work to encourage development of bilateral extradition treaties, international criminal justice institutions, and cooperative border control, legal assistance, and data sharing.

 

The Future: Regional Integration and the Effectiveness of Anti-Narcotics Policy

2015 is marked to be the year in which the ASEAN Economic Community is brought into being, and many hope that it will bring with it great advances in regional trade, infrastructure, and cooperation. Already projects such as the North-South Economic Corridor, running from Kunming to Bangkok, and the building of ports and bridges along the Mekong River are generating enormous economic benefits. However, advances in regional integration also provide opportunities for those who would exploit them for illegal purposes. The increasing ease of transporting illicit narcotics and the improving communication technologies of criminal groups present a strong challenge to the national law enforcement agencies of ASEAN countries. Equally innovative and efficient use of new capabilities and technologies, as well as increased intelligence sharing and coordination must be implemented for Southeast Asian governments to effectively meet these new threats.

In November 2011, just a month after the “Mekong Massacre,” China, Laos, Burma, and Thailand agreed to cooperate on river patrols and law enforcement along the Mekong River. Their Joint Statement detailed numerous confidence building measures between the various national police forces, but mainly focused on the responsibility of each individual nation to properly patrol its own sovereign waters. This aspect reveals the major weakness of all ASEAN counter-narcotics efforts to date: ASEAN nations are caught in a paradoxical situation where despite the damaging effects of the drug industry and transnational crime on national sovereignty, the only way to effectively counter those threats is by each nation giving up some measure of their treasured sovereignty. Sovereignty and non-intervention are the two defining pillars of the “ASEAN Way,” and yet those two concepts desperately need to be reevaluated if transnational crime is to be confronted.

Confidence building measures and increased regional communication is a critical first step, but in order to make real progress in fighting the rising threat of transnational crime ASEAN nations need to accept the reduction of their sovereignty. A hopeful example is provided by the official conclusion of the Mekong Massacre: Naw Kham, the Burmese drug lord who supposedly masterminded the murders, was captured by Burmese counter-narcotics forces and extradited to China, where he and three of his subordinates were tried and executed in March 2013. Extradition treaties like these form the basis of effective cooperation, and similarly collaborative measures must be actively pursued by ASEAN governments if they are to successfully tackle the deeply-entrenched and continually evolving menace of the drug industry in Southeast Asia.

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The Godfather of the Golden Triangle: Lo Hsing Han, Obituary

Most crime bosses and drug barons never reach old age, unless they end up behind bars serving a life sentence. More often than not they are eliminated in a hail of bullets fired by either a police sharp-shooters or from a rival gang.

But  Lo Hsing Han ,the former ‘King of the Golden Triangle’ heroin trade  who survived several decades of opium wars in the Shan state and became one of the world’s ‘Most Wanted Men’, amazingly defied the odds to become an octogenarian. He died in Yangon on July 6th 2013 aged 80.

Nor did this legendary drug-trafficker die in lonely obscurity shunned by society. His lavish funeral was a VIP affair attended by former generals, two cabinet ministers, and hundreds of well-wishers from Burmese high society.

They paid tribute to his rare metamorphosis from a notorious drug-kingpin to a respected business tycoon, the founder of the Asia World Group that has become a dominating pillar of the Myanmar economy. He is also credited with being the key player in establishing the nation’s economic dependence on narco-profits in the 1990s.

Lo was born around 1935 into a poor ethnic Chinese family in the Kokang district of the Shan state northern Myanmar.

His career in the opium trade began in the 1960s not as an outlaw, but as the leader of a Yangon–sanctioned militia, the KKY, under the auspices of General Ne Win’s dictatorship.

The militias were supposed to fight Shan rebel armies and the Burmese communist guerrillas but expended most of their energy on taxing and protecting mule convoys carrying huge sacks of opium. Thanks to a complex chess-board of   nationalist rebels, opium warlords, the Burmese army and communist guerrillas backed by China, anarchy reigned supreme in the Shan state.

After the 1967 Opium War, Lo Hsing Han emerged as the big winner and consolidated much of the opium trade under his command, still enjoying the blessings of the Ne Win regime.

But the regime came to realise that their home guard KKY militias were a failure and started to disband them in 1973, prompting Lo to abruptly change sides and team up with his former enemies the SSA rebels –the Shan State Army.

During the next 20 years the Lo Hsing Han real–life story was packed with more intrigues, changing allegiances and betrayals, than a John Le Carre novel.

British film-maker Adrian Cowell filmed his classic ‘Opium Warlords’ (‘screened on ITV in 1974), after spending more than nine months trapped in the Shan jungles. It featured for the first time an interview with Lo, the legendary warlord.

Lo, the drug trafficker warlord, unexpectedly offered a diplomatic deal to end the narcotics trade in Burma, by offering to sell the whole opium harvest to the US government in exchange for a mere $12 million. It was taken seriously in Washington by a US congressional committee.

DEA agents based in Thailand arranged for Thai Police to pick him up inside Burma with a message that high-ranking US officials had agreed to talks in Chiangmai.  However after the Thai helicopter collected him from inside Burma, he was stunned to be immediately arrested upon arrival in Thailand July 1973.

US law enforcement plans were confounded by the sudden deportation of the prize catch to Yangon. Some Thai officials clearly wanted to stop Lo Hsing Han from talking. Many high-ranking Thai police and military officials were on Lo’s extensive payroll, which helped to grease the smooth transportation of narcotics delivery by road from the Shan state to Thai ports, without being intercepted by police checkpoints.

The Ne Win regime promptly indicted him for treason and he was sentenced to death. In another twist to the saga, the verdict was soon set aside in favour of an 8 years jail term, much of it served comfortably under house arrest. Then in 1980 amnesty was granted and he returned to Lashio in Shan state.

The military junta’s intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt had spotted an opportunity to recycle the resourceful man from Kokang, who had contacts with everybody in the ethnic mosaic of the Shan state, to work for the regime in a new capacity.

A 1989 mutiny inside the communist BCP proved to be a major game-changer, which allowed Lo Hsing Han to play his newly assigned role as a broker of ceasefires.

His contacts with all the Shan, Kokang and Wa rebel armies helped General Khin Nyunt to conclude a series of ceasefire agreements, and in return the military junta happily re-licensed Lo to resume the opium and heroin trade in opposition to rival drug warlord Khun Sa, who was still fighting the government under the banner of Shan nationalism.

In 1992 Asia World Corporation was set up in Yangon as a family partnership between Lo Hsing Han the chairman and his son US- educated Steven Law, the managing director.

The company’s portfolio included: import-export business, bus transport, property development and Rangoon’s port development.

But it was Singapore ‘s decision to get into bed with the Lo family’s Asia world conglomerate with a stake in two new luxury hotel through the government’s investment arm GIS, that garnered most international attention.

According to research based on all the available date of Myanmar’s trade investment and revenue in the fiscal year 1995-6, no less than US$600 million income in the state treasury could not be accounted for.

This conspicuous gap in Myanmar’s bookkeeping at a time when their official economy was on the rocks, points to only one plausible explanation–a generous infusion of narco-dollars from the Golden Triangle coming from Lo. One of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs had come to the rescue of a faltering economy in dire straits.

The grand wedding of  Steven Law to Singaporean business partner Cecilia Ng in 1996  clearly helped to cement the growing ties between the military junta, Asia World, and Singapore investors..

The Lo family’s guest of honour was Hotels and Tourism Minister Lieut. General Kyaw Ba, accompanied by four more cabinet ministers, and two planeloads of wedding guests from Singapore. The special charter flights not only carried the bride’s relatives, but also investors from representing one of Asia’s most important financial hubs.

US officials claimed that half of Singapore’s investments in Myanmar have been tied to Lo’s family.

It was far more than a grand wedding bash. It symbolised Lo Hsing Han’s metamorphosis from a drug baron to a corporate respectability, and his acceptance by investors from a key member of the Asean business community.

Asia World established three subsidiaries in Singapore jointly run by Steven Law and his wife Cecilia Ng (Ng Sor Hong) she allegedly also runs an underground banking system facilitating money-laundering and safe tax havens for narco-dollars.

Although Singapore is proud of its mandatory death penalty for small-time narcotics couriers and heroin addicts, both father and son travelled freely in and out of the island city state.

Steven Law and his father had become VIPs in Burma, and welcome business partners in Singapore, but they were forbidden to enter the United States since 1996 on “suspicion of involvement in narcotics trafficking.”

Under new US sanctions imposed in 2008 Asia World and six of its subsidiaries were blacklisted and similar sanctions were applied by the UK.

But these sanctions have done little to hinder Asia World‘s dynamic expansion. The company built on the illicit black economy has thrived,  and currently  partners major companies from mainland China in several mega-projects including an oil and gas pipeline, a deep sea port at Kyaukpyu, and the controversial Myitsone dam project.

Another irony is that Lo was closely connected to Taiwan’s military intelligence for 30 years, and deployed his Shan and Kokang soldiers to fight against Beijing-backed Burmese communist party.

Asia World has its financial foundations built on the law of the Burmese jungle and the 3 Gs :Guns, Gold and Goons. But  Lo’ s legacy will casts a long shadow over the aspirations of many groups to move the economy out of the hands of the cronies, and towards a respect for environment, human rights and the development of a democracy.

This account of the Life and Times of Lo Hsin Han provided the basis for the obituary published in The Economist in July, 2013.

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Book: River of Lost Footsteps

River of Lost Footsteps

Thant Myint-U (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Since the beginning of political and economic reforms in 2010, Burma has become a regular topic inthe news. Anyone who regular reads publications like the New York Times or the Economist would beable to consider themselves relatively well-informed about the rapidly changing situation in the Golden Land. However, much of the coverage of Burma is often ahistorical, and there is little public discussion about Burma before 2010, let alone before Aung San Suu Kyi. In River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint-U provides a detailed history of Burma over the past four centuries, all the while weaving in the story of his own family in Burma.

Indeed, Thant Myint-U is uniquely positioned to write such a history. Born in New York, his grandfather U Thant was the Secretary-General of the UN in the 1960s. Educated at Harvard, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and Cambridge, the author has lectured extensively on Asian and British imperial history. In the book, his mastery of the subject is quite evident, but also is a certain objectivity. Being Burmese himself and having spent summers there while growing up, he has an obvious intimacy with the country and passion for it but at the same time, he lacks the nationalistic bias that some native Burmese writers might carry. Continue reading

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Regional Roundup for Week of 4.18.2013

Just the news this week. Continue reading

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About East by Southeast

WRITE FOR US!  JOIN THE ExSE TEAM, contact us at eastbysoutheastmail@gmail.com

The East by Southeast team is made up of scholars, development professionals, logistics experts, environmentalists, green entrepreneurs, and policy makers. We all live and work in the region – some were born here and some are implants. It is in the framework of the wide variety of our opinions that we seek to promote a deeper discussion of regional challenges. Some of us write under pen names to allow discussion to flow freely.

In addition to blog posts, look forward to weekly new digests, book reviews, and data that will help better inform your understanding of this dynamic region.

 

WHY WE WRITE:

There are many good blogs about China and many from Southeast Asia, but it is surprising that there are few blogs looking at the connections between China and Southeast Asia given shared development challenges, centuries of historical and cultural interaction, and rising volumes of trade and people movement between China and Southeast Asia.

In the 1990s, nations and ethnic groups that were cut off from cross-border interaction during the Cold War began to reunite as peace spread throughout the region, and arguably, China’s rise has reinforced stability within the region to deliver deepened integration.  Fast forward twenty years, the region is home to some of the fastest growing economies in the world and rapidly changing urban spaces. It is also known for its abundance in natural resources and biodiversity, and development trajectories are converting those resources into cash crops and energy commodities for trade and consumption. On mainland Southeast Asia, a lack of policy coordination and communication between governments and stakeholders has already created a variety of trans-boundary issues like fisheries depletion in the Mekong watershed.  As a result, for the first time, the region faces threats to food security and a potentially gross mismanagement of its resource endowment.

In addition to the growing connections between China and Southeast Asia, the East by Southeast blog team will examine China’s footprint across its southern borders to provide answers to some of the big questions surrounding China’s global rise. We seek to understand the effect and return of China’s outpouring of aid and investment to its Southeast Asian neighbors and monitor changes in China’s approach to foreign policy as its interests spread across the region. We want to know how China’s neighbors are adapting to its rise and how effectively China’s soft power is spreading. There is much room for discussion and exploration of the gaps between China’s rhetoric on its peaceful rise in the region and its ability to continue expanding its resource base to feed the needs of a rapidly growing economy. Lastly, we are concerned with China’s adaptation and response to a new and concerted US foreign policy toward Southeast Asia.

From a different perspective, the blog team will look at how the space between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors is decreasing at a rapid rate as transportation infrastructure, advances in information transfer, and trade linkages reach across borders and states use what Yale scholar James C. Scott calls in his 2009 watershed work The Art of Not Being Governed, “distance demolishing technologies” to connect areas that were once the frontiers beyond all frontiers. For example, energy from hydropower plants is sent from Laos to the China’s east coast development zones, you can now drive a container truck from Kunming to Bangkok in less than a day on what was once previous non-navigable terrain, and in 2015 the ASEAN Economic Community promises to drop the barriers to the movement of labor and goods through the region. In addition to understanding the trajectory and obstacles of regional integration,
we want to explore how rapid and sudden improvements in connectivity reshape individual livelihoods, communities, and regional relationships.

There are so many stories to tell of the people who are shaping the region for better or for worse and of the people who are affected
by regional decision making. Narratives from the varied and violent histories of the Cold War, colonial, and pre-colonial eras can help demonstrate how history can inform the present challenges. In addition, the blog will expore many regional question marks such as the tenuous path to democratization in Myanmar (and Thailand and Cambodia), Kunming’s rise as the Bangkok of the north, a high-speed rail system through Laos, and the effects of salinization in the Mekong Delta.  Can cities and rural areas in the region learn how to provide each other with sustainable solutions to development challenges? Are there lessons to be taught as countries like Thailand, China, and Indonesia seek to escape the middle income trap?

The East by Southeast team is made up of scholars, development professionals, logistics experts, environmentalists, green entrepreneurs, and policy makers. We all live and work in the region – some were born here and some are implants. It is in the framework of the wide variety of our opinions that we seek to promote a deeper discussion of regional challenges. Some of us write under pen names to allow discussion to flow freely.

In addition to blog posts, look forward to weekly new digests, book reviews, and data that will help better inform your understanding of this dynamic region.

If you’d like to join the discussion, feel free to leave a comment after our posts, or if you’d like to contribute to the blog by becoming a team member, send us a message to eastbysoutheastmail@gmail.com.

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