Burma is the world's number one producer of methamphetamine, or speed, and second only to Afghanistan in the production of heroin. A recent visit by a relief team, partly sponsored by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, found disturbing evidence that the Burmese army, far from trying to stamp out this industry, is complicit in it.
Some 200,000 people in Britain are addicted to heroin, and it is all too easy to produce. Opium poppy flowers drop their petals and produce a capsule which is then scored to allow the gum to seep out. This then dries on the outside of the capsule and is harvested a day later. This gum is then allowed to dry and is sold on. Later down the chain, the gum is processed into morphine with boiling water and then mixed with various chemicals to produce heroin, either to smoke or inject. Civilian growers in Burma are forced to grow poppies and are then heavily taxed by the army on the sales they make. They are also forced to manufacture methamphetamine tablets, which are made from ephedrine, easily available from China and India.
Any civilians who refuse are driven from their homes; more than 300,0(0 of the Shan people have been displaced in this way. In one village the team visited, opium was the main source of revenue. Many of the villagers were addicts. They said the Burmese army came three times a year to tax them. As the team went from village to village, it found up to a third of the men lying in small huts in a drugged haze.
Army vehicles transport the opium along the main dirt road eastwards to heroin refineries. These laboratories are often operated by Chinese technicians and guarded by regular soldiers. Littered across Burma is evidence of these makeshift heroin laboratories. The team paused beside a stream to look at about 50 five-gallon drums, bottles and empty cans of chemicals. But for every disused laboratory, more are springing up. In most villages above 3,000ft opium is grown. Opium production is the biggest industry in parts of the Shan states in the East of Burma.
As the team moved on, they stumbled upon a group of Chinese who were constructing a heroin laboratory. They had dug a large pit to boil and render raw opium. When the team asked them who they were working for, they became visibly nervous and angry.
When they heard the learn was in the area, the Burmese army dispatched three columns to intercept these relief workers, who were bringing urgently needed medical supplies to the Shan states. Fortunately the team managed to get safely out of the area to bring evidence of the regime's corruption to the world.
Although there has been some progress on the counter-narcotics front, these drugs continue to flow over the borders with China and Thailand. Outside these countries there is believed to be wide distribution to the United States, Australia and many other countries in South East Asia. It is estimated that up to one billion methamphetamine tablets, worth £2 billion, will be shipped across the l'hai border next year. It is not just drug production which destroys the lives of the people in this part of Burma. The women live in few of being raped.
Thirty-seven-year-old Nang, who is married with one child, was walking across the fields to take rice to her hus band when Burmese army troops appeared. Six of them took turns to rape her until she lost consciousness.
"No one is left in our village. All have fled," she told the team. "In the past two years there has been a great increase in rapes in our area of the Shan states. We want the world to know it, to help us go home."
Many of the men are forced to carr■ heavy loads for the Burmese army. Loong was beaten with a heavy stick until he passed out. He said: "They fractured my skull, broke my jaw and cheek, and blinded me in one eye. Then they left me for dead." The relief team prayed with the victims, provided medical care, and gave out educational supplies, Bibles and clothes. One village they visited had neither a school nor a clinic. The relief team provided dental and medical care and treated 70 patients for illnesses, including malaria, vitamin deficiency and trauma. The team led a prayer service that night. A member of the relief team, who asked not to be named, said: "People are suffering, afraid, sick, homeless and often hopeless. We go to remind them that neither God and the Church, nor the world has forgotten them, and that as children of God we can help each other. We give them love, hope, the Gospel and whatever material assistance we can bring."
CSW has welcomed a recent initiative by the ethnic nationalities to promote national reconciliation in an attempt to work together against the oppression of the .military regime, which is held responsible for up to 10,000 civilian deaths a year.
For the past two years, representatives from the eight constituent states
of Burma — the seven ethnic states (Arakan, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Mon and Shan), with Burma proper (represented by the democratic government in exile, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma) — have been working together to look at constitutional reform.
The constitution, in particular the issue of ethnic rights, is at the root of much of Burma's problems today. The non-Burman ethnic nationalities constitute at least 40 per cent of the country's 48 million population and occupy more than two-thirds of the land.
With Aung San Suu Kyi again arrested by the regime and with ethnic cleansing and drug production on the increase, ethnic participation in political dialogue is vital and is the best means of promoting national reconciliation with democracy and a lasting peace.
For more information on Burma and what you can do to support Burmese Christians and democracy, please visit www.csw.org.uk or ring Christian Solidarity Worldwide on 020 8942 8810.