Singapore's hand in Golden Triangle

November 23, 2005

Michael McKenna

WHILE Singapore has an unwavering policy of hanging drug mules such as Australia's Nguyen Tuong Van without mercy, it has for years been one of the strongest backers of Burma, the world's second-biggest producer of heroin.

Despite the pariah status of the military junta-controlled country as a flagrant breacher of human rights and the engine-room of the notorious opium golden triangle, Singapore has long been one of its key trading partners.

In the 10 months to October, Singapore - Burma's second-biggest source of imports - shipped more than $650 million of goods to the country. By comparison, Australia's exports to Burma last year were valued at $27 million or 0.01 per cent of total exports.

And for more than a decade, the Singapore government has shrugged off evidence that some of its business backing has gone directly to Burma's drug kingpins, specifically infamous heroin trafficker Lo Hsing Han.

A substantial portion of Burma's heroin finds its way directly to Australia. The Australian Institute of Criminology cites the country as the chief source of Australia's supply of the drug.

In 1997, former US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Robert Gelbard, said: "Since 1988 ... over half (of the US$1 billion investments from) Singapore have been tied to the family of narco-trafficker Lo Hsing Han."

Lo, 70, reportedly started out as an opium-trafficking insurgent against the Burmese government in the 1950s. He spent time on death row in Rangoon, Burma's capital, in the 1970s, for treason before he bought his liberty and expanded his business into what was described as the most heavily armed and biggest heroin operation in Southeast Asia. It is believed he now rules as "godfather" over a clan of traffickers in Burma.

In 1992, Lo founded one of Burma's largest conglomerates, the Asia World Company, which allegedly acts as an upmarket front and money-launderer for the drug operation.

Lo's American-educated son, Steven Law, who is married to a Singaporean woman, Cecilia Ng, is managing director of Asia World and runs three "overseas branches" of the conglomerate in Singapore. But while Law may live the high life during his regular trips to Singapore, he has been repeatedly declined a US visa due to his suspected links to the drug trade.

A spokesman for the Australian Immigration Department last night said it could not comment because of "privacy reasons" on whether Lo or Law had applied for an Australian visa. Australia has an embassy in Rangoon, where two Australian Federal Police officers are stationed to gather intelligence on drug trafficking activities.

Burma has received support in the past from the father of Singapore, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who defended the military as the "only instrument of government" in the country. Arguing that detained democracy campaigner and Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi should stay "behind the fence and be a symbol", Mr Lee said she might not be able to rule Burma without the power the military commanded.

Ms Suu Kyi could not be contacted last night. But the secretary of her party, the National League for Democracy, said the Singapore Government's decision to hang small-time drug peddlers such as Van was extreme. "Singapore is a democracy. We here are living under a strict, harsh government, but we don't hang people in Burma," U Lwin said.

The links between Singapore and the drug lords of Burma began to surface in the mid-1990s. In 1996, it emerged that the Singapore Government Investment Corporation had co-invested with Lo in the Traders and Shangri-La hotels in Rangoon through its 21.5 per cent stake in the US$39 million ($52 million) Myanmar Fund.

Many Singapore companies are involved in the Asia World group, and $900 million-plus a year pours into Burma in private investment from Singapore.

The contradiction of the Singapore Government executing those caught with more than 27g of heroin while doing business with the drug masters is not lost on some in the island state of 4 million people.

Chee Soon Juan, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, said the funding made a mockery of Singapore's hardline stance on drug trafficking.

"If the Singapore Government truly feels drug abuse is a scourge on society, it would not just want to catch and hang these small-time peddlers," he said.

"You would want to go for the big fish and go to what the source is. Press the Government on what it's doing in Burma to stop this production of opium and heroin."