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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

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