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Cut my head off if I don't ban poppies, says Burma's top drug lord

1 Mai 2004
The Times

The head of a region that was the source of half the world's heroin is to halt the poppy growing, he tells Oliver August in Pangsang

WHEN Bao Youxiang offered to meet US diplomats in Rangoon for a chat, they declined, telling a foreign intermediary that he would be arrested on the spot if he entered the embassy.

The Burmese rebel leader, whose remote territory was the source of about half the world's heroin in 2001, has a price of $1 million (Pounds 560,000) on his head, the diplomat pointed out.

Bao is the leader of the hardy Wa tribe, former head hunters who openly grow poppies on vast hillsides and legally trade opium in village markets from where it is transported to Britain and other Western countries.

At the embassy in Rangoon, Chairman Bao, as he likes to be called, had intended to tell US diplomats about a radical plan to shed his drug lord image. He wants to ban all poppy cultivation by his 400,000 people by next summer, a step that would transform the region. Short of sympathetic listeners, he invited The Times to inspect preparations for the ban, followed by an evening of ten-pin bowling in the King Pin's mountain stronghold.

Pangsang is only reachable via three consecutive domestic flights and a twelve-hour bus ride through poppy-growing areas controlled by Chairman Bao's 30,000-strong personal army, labelled the world's "most heavily armed narco- traffickers".

The Wa "capital" stretches along a river valley, wedged between a sleepy Chinese border crossing and a fortified checkpoint. Along the main street there is a 20ft golden water buffalo statue, the scene of recent celebrations on the Wa "National Day". Chairman Bao has issued his own car licence plates and school curriculum and his meetings with foreigners are filmed by Wa state television.

"You can chop my head off if there are still poppies here next year," he said in fluent Mandarin, using one of his favourite phrases. "I want to help my people by building a modern economy." A 10 per cent tax on opium has long been a major source of income.

Chairman Bao was seated in a banquet hall with dining tables arranged for three dozen. He apologised for the absence of most of his lieutenants, whom he called "Central Committee members" as if referring to China's Communist leadership.

The 57-year-old, who had only two years of education in a Chinese primary school, has expanded the region's road network sixfold in recent years, thanks to good trade relations with China along the 300-mile border. But Beijing has put pressure on him to abandon drug trafficking and to concentrate on commerce in line with World Trade Organisation guidelines.

Public Security Bureau officials from China, fighting a domestic heroin flood, have visited Pangsang to arrest traffickers presented to them by Chairman Bao's United Wa State Army.

The US Government has yet to endorse his conversion from drug lord to nation builder, but it is helping to fund a UN aid programme in Wa territory. Jeremy Milsom, a UN official, said: "We believe that Bao is genuine. He used to be up to his neck in it, but now he wants out."

When his brother was found to be operating drug factories close to a UN project station this year, Chairman Bao, who shed his combat fatigues in 1996 and now wears a diamond Rolex and a sapphire ring, acted promptly. The labs were closed and the brother's militia disbanded, although he has not been arrested.

United Wa State Army soldiers appear to support the crackdown. Ai Sam, an armed and uniformed 16-year-old, said: "The ban should help to stop addiction in the army. We were told offenders will go to prison for four years." Even senior officers, long beneficiaries of the drugs trade, at least publicly applaud the ban.

Zhao Wenxing, a regional commander, said: "We don't want to be known as the Wild Wa any more. We want to be friends with other countries and you can't with opium."

Attending a family funeral, the commander stood only a few feet away from his relatives' poppy plot. Every spring, the hill tribe villagers score the plump bulbs with razor-like tools and scoop up the oozing opium, rolling it into fist-sized balls.

Dressed in their Sunday best, they take their harvest to market traders who use as weights old silver rupee coins picturing George V and Edward VII. A kilo (2.2lb) of opium sells for about Pounds 130, an annual income for the villagers.

The production of heroin, as well as synthetic drugs, boomed in the 1990s after Chairman Bao negotiated a ceasefire with the Burmese Government, ending decades of fighting. His motivation for imposing a ban now is something of a mystery.

Possibly, the Rangoon regime is buying him off to improve Burma's international image. The Bao family has been able to take over a government airline. Pressure from China, long opposed to drugs, is another factor.

The Chinese Ambassador to Rangoon has repeatedly visited Chairman Bao. The warlord, some say, is also concerned with his legacy. He keeps referring to "history" and "my people".

Others point to his young second wife, a progressive ethnic Chinese who persuaded him to set up a women's union in the Wa state. When he decided to marry her, he apparently had quite a bit of persuading to do himself: his first wife only reluctantly accepted the younger companion into what is now their joint household, a plush villa with a large satellite dish, guarded by teenagers with hand grenades.

Most of his people live much more modestly. Opium is the only source of income and medicine in much of the Wa region, and when the ban comes into effect in July, it will cause major disruption. Kya Teh, 56, who has smoked to fight chronic pains for the past ten years, moaned: "I don't know what I'll do without it." The village chief in Kaw Law Su, a huddle of four dozen huts on a ridge line, said: "The situation will be desperate after the ban. Every household here grows opium."

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that the loss of income will condemn many Wa to starvation and has financed an Pounds 8 million relief effort, including building irrigation canals for new rice paddies. If the fallout from the ban cannot be managed, the UN office says, opium production is likely to resume on a grand scale.

That, of course, presupposes Bao is genuine in the first place. As far as a visitor can tell, he may be. The public recognition of opium as an evil by the Wa is a huge step.

"Drugs are bad for you. Really, bowling is much better entertainment," Chairman Bao said as he gestured to an assistant to book a few lanes at his favourite ten-pin alley across the street.

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 2004

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