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Sunday, March 28, 1999 Published at 13:05 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Burma fights opium trade

The opium fields of Burma's "Golden Triangle" of drugs

The Burmese government has been seizing and setting fire to vast quantities of illicit drugs produced in the country's massive opium-growing belt.

David Willis reports from Burma's opium poppy fields
The move is just one part of a crusade against the country's reputation as the world's largest source of illicit opium and its deadly derivative, heroin.

"We're going to make Burma an opium-free zone," said Lieutenant Colonel Hia Min of the Burmese Army.

[ image: Opium poppies are many farmers' livelihood]
Opium poppies are many farmers' livelihood
But eradicating the country's notorious opium poppy fields is not just a matter of torching this year's crops.

Some Burmese families have farmed nothing but opium poppies for more than a century.

Opium earns them three times more money than less controversial crops like sugar cane or coffee.

So, from an economic point of view, it is proving very difficult to convince farmers to change.

Aid denied

Burma says it needs money to make ensure that the farmers plant alternative crops and do not go back to growing opium.

[ image: The military have been enlisted to slash the fields ...]
The military have been enlisted to slash the fields ...
The ruling military junta recently hosted an international conference on drugs to rally overseas support.

But Britain led a European boycott of the event because it believes that the army works in collusion with drug barons.

The UK is suspicious of an amnesty granted to one of Europe's most notorious drug barons, Khun Sa, said to be living in luxury in Rangoon.

Burma admits striking a deal with Khun Sa but Colonel Kyaw Thein, of Burma's Drug Abuse Control Committee, defends the policy.

He says: "How many lives would it cost if he was still fighting the government?"

Policy block

According to the BBC's correspondent in Burma, David Willis, the poppy crop fires have helped convince some international agencies that Burma's generals are sincere in their desire to rid the world of drugs.

[ image: ... and burn the crops]
... and burn the crops
The junta says it could eliminate all the poppy fields within a year if countries like the UK would agree to help.

Our correspondent says the UK's so-called ethical foreign policy is posing something of a dilemma.

Providing assistance would undermine the existing sanctions policy and lend legitimacy to the regime.

But, he says, it could also achieve a major victory in the fight to keep drugs off Britain's streets.

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