Across China's Border, Myanmar's Fate Is A Question Of Drugs As Much As Democracy

As U.S. Secretary Of State Hillary Clinton makes a historic visit, Myanmar may be starting to edge to more openness, and perhaps even real democracy. But along the border with China, the so-called "golden triangle"is a haven of drug and

Burmese refugees across the Chinese border in Yunnan province (treasuresthouhast)
Burmese refugees across the Chinese border in Yunnan province (treasuresthouhast)
Federico Varese

RUILI – Most people have probably never heard of this place named Ruili. And yet it should be mentioned in the same breath with the world's other capitals of globalized crime: like the mafia base Gioia Tauro in the Italian region of Calabria, the European center of human trafficking in Veleshta, Macedonia, and Ciudad del Este, in Paraguay, where the black market is legal and no goods are taxed.

The city of Ruili has a population of 140,000 and is located in the Chinese province of Yunnan on the border of Myanmar. This "golden triangle" is the world's second-largest producer of opium after Afghanistan, with hundreds of heroin and amphetamines refineries scattered across the landscape.

Reporters and activists are busy chronicling signs that Myanmar may be edging toward democracy. This week's visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives them even more to talk about. What isn't being mentioned much, however, is that drug production and trafficking will have a decisive influence on the country's future.

"In Ruili, you'll see things you won't see anywhere else in China," says a taxi driver, stunned to meet an Italian. On the street leading into the city center, we encountered four roadblocks.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government has sent the army here. Burmese businessmen cross the borders nonstop to buy products on sale, browsing Ruili's small parking slots, which have been turned into makeshift shops.

On the other side of the border, Chinese buy raw jade, wood, minerals, and exotic animals. Others export heroin and amphetamines from Myanmar through the check point between Ruili and the Burmese city of Muse. Then the drug is sold in South China, Canton, Hong Kong, and finally to the rest of the world.

Human trafficking is flourishing too. There are many young Burmese women in Ruili's hundreds of brothels. Some of them came here looking for a new life. Many have been sold by their own families. Often, Chinese gangs cross the border to kidnap Burmese girls and sell them as wives in China. The first AIDS epidemic in China exploded here, and the area continues to have China's highest percentage of HIV-positive people.

This is also a strategic area for the region's energy future. A $2 billion oil pipeline projected to carry Middle East oil from the Bay of Bengal to Ruili via Myanmar is currently under construction. It will allow oil to be transported through the Malacca Strait where piracy attacks are too frequent.

A wanted (business)man

The line here between legal and illegal activities is blurred. A man named Wei Hsueh-kang has recently obtained the rights to extract jade from Burmese mines. He is a drug trafficker, a respected businessman in China and the chief of an independence army in Myanmar. He is also wanted by the United States for drug crimes committed in U.S. territory. The Americans are offering a reward of $2 million for information leading to his capture.

According to Ko-lin Chin, a Burmese researcher who has worked in these areas, Wei Hsueh-kang is the golden triangle's most powerful drug trafficker, controlling a network of narcotics refineries. Despite being of Chinese origin, he has obtained the help of local armies. And with the money made from drug trafficking, he has founded a group that has interests in construction, agriculture, minerals, oil, electronic and communication, with bases in both China and Myanmar.

Myanmar opened to China and to the free market in 1989. According to reports, more than one million Chinese businessmen moved to Myanmar in the 1990s. Some of them got rich and went back home. Most of them got stuck in an underdeveloped, corrupt and inhospitable country.

Thanks to their contacts in China, though, many were able to bring to Myanmar technologies to refine heroine and to produce amphetamines. Today, more than 100 labs are hidden in the jungle of the Kachin region, where there are also jade mines.

The producers sell drugs to the traffickers who carry it across the border, with autonomist militia and military corps acting as local protectors. Many traffickers have built houses and restaurants in Ruili. According to locals, a drug trafficking boss has just invested in the construction of a golf course. He is also said to be the owner of the hotel where I stayed.

Here, drug traffickers don't look like mobsters, but more like legitimate businessmen. Drugs, indeed, are just one among their many activities. Don't imagine a giant global octopus maneuvering tons of narcotics across the world. This commerce, instead, is carried via flexible networks that don't depend on traditional mafia structures. The connections between Chinese communities spread around the world facilitate international criminal activities.

All eyes these days are on Burmese opposition politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. And yet the future of Myanmar depends also on Ruili, on the opium cultivation in the golden triangle, on the autonomist militia, and on the illegal refineries. Democracy, as parts of Latin America show us today, is no guarantee of peace and security.

Read the original article in Italian

Photo - treasuresthouhast

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

— Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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