RANGOON, Burma — The government's spraying of a controversial herbicide over opium fields in the "Golden Triangle" has been praised as one of the most effective anti-narcotics efforts in the world.
But critics say the Burmese government is using the U.S.-supplied herbicide in its fight against ethnic minorities seeking autonomy. They also say the aerial spraying is hurting poor farmers by destroying their livelihood and, ironically, fueling the insurgencies the government is trying to stop.
The stakes in this season's drug war are high.
Massive Opium Harvest
Due to superb weather, as much as 900 tons of opium may be harvested in the rugged hills of Burma's Shan state, one of the world's prime sources for the drug.
This opium mountain, refined into heroin, would fetch roughly $135 billion if sold on the streets of New York.
American officials estimate that 20% of the heroin is shipped into the United States, a similar amount enters Western Europe, and the rest is consumed locally or smuggled to other Asian nations.
To stem the flow, Washington has provided Burma with five single-engine Thrush aircraft, trained nine of its pilots in the United States and is supplying the herbicide 2,4-D for the second season to wipe out the fields.
The U.S. aid totaled $11 million this year.
Critics, such as American political scientist Josef Silverstein, maintain the herbicide is a welcome weapon in Rangoon's decades-long war against a welter of ethnic minorities.
In Shan state, opium money is used to buy weapons and build rebel armies.
Poor Farmers Hurt
But Silverstein, author of several books on Burma, stressed in an interview in Bangkok that rather than hurting the traffickers, the aerial campaign is devastating the livelihoods of the impoverished growers for whom opium has traditionally been a key cash crop, medium of exchange and even a medicine.
Silverstein says that, unlike neighboring Thailand, which has refused to use aerial eradication, the Burmese government has virtually no general development projects in the insurgency-rife hills nor efforts to substitute opium with other cash crops in the targeted areas.
"As far as the hill tribes of northern Burma are concerned, the herbicide spraying might as well be a B-52 bombing raid," American human rights researcher Edith T. Mirante said. "This is a dirty way to fight a war on drugs."
Mirante recently returned to Bangkok from Shan state with photographs of food-crop fields allegedly destroyed by the spraying and transcripts of interviews with tribesmen who linked the herbicide to sickness and deaths in their villages.
Herbicide 2,4-D is designed to kill all broad-leafed plants, but U.S. officials concede that soybeans, potatoes, cotton and other crops grown by the tribals may be eradicated.
U.S. Praises Campaign
In response to criticism, the U.S. director for drug abuse policy, Carlton E. Turner, last fall called the Burmese campaign "one of the most successful narcotics control initiatives under way anywhere in the world."
"Our experience has shown that destroying drugs at the source hits the weakest link in the drug chain and produces the most immediate results," Turner wrote in a letter to Mirante.
The Burmese government, fighting a serious domestic heroin addiction problem, announced that last year 24,000 acres were destroyed through aerial spraying and an additional 9,000 acres by the slower and far more arduous method of slashing the opium poppy plants.
The secretive government provides little other information. Neither American officials nor independent observers can monitor the spraying or see the effects on the ground.
Critics say the aerial eradication is serving to fuel the insurgencies by deepening anger against the Burmese government in the Shan hills.
The official American policy is that the United States is solely interested in eliminating the drug scourge and is in no way involved in Burma's insurgencies. U.S. documents stress that some insurgencies are masquerades for narcotics operations, but they generally do not differentiate between the poor opium growers and the organized groups who buy and smuggle the drug.
Skeptical of Reports
Western diplomats in Bangkok have been generally skeptical of stories about people and animals dying after exposure to the herbicide, noting these are often circulated by insurgents trying to gain international sympathy.
The U.S. government maintains that 2,4-D is safe if properly used.
Last September, however, a survey of Kansas farmers showed those exposed to the chemical at least 20 days a year had six times the rate of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a tumor of the lymph system, as did other farmers. Farmers who personally mixed up batches of the chemicals had eight times the rate.
Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Al Heier said the EPA might call a "special review" of the herbicide, widely used on home gardens and lawns. One large lawn-care company, Chemlawn Services, said it was dropping 2,4-D because of the Kansas results.
Mirante believes some have died and fallen ill from the herbicides, which she says contaminate village food and water supplies and are generally sprayed without prior education or warning.