and Singapore: strange bedfellows
By Dr Chee Soon Juan.
SINGAPORE'S draconian measures against drug trafficking have been both lauded and denounced. Advocates of capital punishment for drug traffickers applaud the Singapore government's tough stand of executing these criminals. Their opponents show reprobation of such harsh penalty. But while such debate is significant, it misses the point. While Singapore hangs small-time drug peddlars, the government continues to trade lavishly with Burma - the world's largest producer of heroin. The hypocrisy begs attention.
Burma remains one of the world's largest producers of opium and heroin. In fact, the country produces 50 percent of known global illicit output of opium. Raw opium is subsequently refined into heroin. Heroin from Burma floods Southeast Asia, Australia, and the US Druglords such as Khun Sa, Lin Mingxian and Lo Hsing Han have been, and according to some sources continue to, actively produce and traffick drugs from Burma. Khun Sa is reportedly still healthy and coordinating drug activities from his luxurious guesthouse provided by the Burmese army in Rangoon.
The French-based Observatoire Geopolitique des Drogues says of Lin Mingxian: "Our sources have tracked Lin's heroin trail since 1989." Lin's heroin refineries involve the entire region including Southern China, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Lo Hsing Han, another Burmese national, is described by the International Narcotics Control Board as "a drug trafficker in the Golden Golden Triangle" and Thailand's Office of Narcotics Control Board indicated that Lo Hsing Han is still actively smuggling heroin.
Not only are these drug activities allowed to operate in Burma, they are also actively encouraged by the SLORC. The military junta has officially recognised some of these drug barons as leaders of local militia groups and national races in order to quell their opposition to the SLORC's rule. In return, these druglords are given free access to produce and traffick their heroin. SLORC collects taxes on these drugs to boot.
The US State Department unambiguously stated that: "Leaders of these drug-trafficking armies have benefitted immensely from their good relationships with the Rangoon regime; their businesses - legitimate and illegitimate - have propsered...Several major traffickers now participate in the government's national constitutional convention in the guise of ethnic leaders."
Observers have reported that in some parts of Burma, the army forces farmers to plant poppy seeds and directly controls the opium-heroin trade. The US Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs said that "significant" poppy growing is happening in areas of Burma controlled by the SLORC. In fact, the US State Department dead-panned: "It is unlikely that the heroin trade can be curtailed without fundamental political change in Burma."
But what has all this to do with Singapore? Drug addiction continues to be a problem among Singaporean youth. Juvenile crimes in Singapore is on the increase and the Singapore government has announced that hard core drug addicts are more likely to commit crimes. In order to curb such a trend, the government has stiffened the penalty for repeat offenders who can be detained up to 13 years and given six strokes of the cane. On top of this, drug peddlars carrying as little as 15 gm of heroin or 1.2 kg of opium are routinely hanged.
On May 7, 1997, a Singaporean was sentenced to hang when he was found to possess opium exceeding the allowed limit. The man explained in court that he was using the opium for his Chinese medical practice and not for sale to addicts. The judge replied that: "It was sufficient for me to accept that he (the accused) genuinely believed in them (the medicinal practices)" but added that the accused knew that "the government was not happy with people keeping opium." (The medicine man was subsequently given a reprieve and sentenced jail only). In 1995 alone, an average of one drug trafficker was hanged every week.
Herein lies the irony. As much as the Singapore government is "not happy with people keeping opium," it does extensive trade with a regime notorious for supporting and operating the drug trade in Burma.
Singapore remains the second largest investor in Burma. In the hotel industry, Singapore tops the list with $546 million invested in various hotel projects - more than Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, the UK and France put together.
With such investments, the SLORC has been actively trying to promote Burma as a tourist haven. In fact, SLORC Generals have been diligently trying to woo the Singaporean tourist.
The difference between Singapore and some of the other countries investing in Burma is that while other countries are represented by private companies, the Singapore government is itself is involved in the businesses.
A television documentary , Singapore Sling, by Australia's Special Broadcasting Services alleged that the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation, (GIC), has invested heavily in the Myanmar Fund, an investment company set up to promote and finance investments in Burma. Lo Hsing Han's Asia World Co. also has shares in the Myanmar Fund. It was also alleged that Lo travels freely in and out of Singapore. In addition, Lo's son, Steven Law, who has been denied a visa to enter the US because of suspected drug activities, has a registered business in Singapore.
After the programme was aired in October 1996, the Singapore government lodged a protest through its High Commission in Canberra. The television station stood by its report and invited representatives of the government to appear in a subsequent episode to discuss the issue. The Singapore government declined.
This brings us back to the question of Singapore's support of the SLORC. For as long as the government's (as well as ASEAN's) policy of constructive engagement with the military regime in Burma has been in place, heroin production and trafficking have continued unabated, and even increased. With heroin comes the increased usage of syringes and needles. With needles comes AIDS.
Quite apart from the human rights abuses by the SLORC, the avid support given by the Singapore government in investments must surely be questioned in the context of the extent to which Burma's drug trade affects unsuspecting and impressionable youths all over the world.
Perhaps, it would not be too much to ask the PAP, that in the years that it has been constructively engaging the SLORC, what it has done to pressure the military junta to crackdown on drug production and trafficking in Burma. Meanwhile small-time drug peddlars continue to be hung in Singapore's prisons.
The writer is secretary
general of the Singapore Democratic Party.