- Title: Myanmar's strongest ethnic armed group says drug label 'not fair'
- Date: 8th October 2016
- Summary: POSTER ON WALL AND SIGN SAYING (Burmese, Wa, Chinese)"WELCOME TO WA STATE"
- Embargoed: 23rd October 2016 09:09
- Keywords: Myanmar armed group Wa ethnic drug
- Location: WA TERRITORY, MYANMAR
- City: WA TERRITORY, MYANMAR
- Country: Myanmar
- Topics: Government/Politics
- Reuters ID: LVA0025358OQT
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: The Wa State - a secretive, China-dominated statelet the size of Belgium in the remote hills on Myanmar's eastern border - used to be one of Myanmar's largest poppy-growing areas, but, under international pressure, the region's leaders say they replaced poppy fields with tea, coffee and rubber plantations more than a decade ago.
Many plantations are backed by investors from China or Taiwan, alongside businessmen connected to the Wa State leadership.
Rubber trees now line the region's freshly-paved roads, which snake for hundreds of kilometres through emerald mountains and the region also cultivates some 220,000 acres of rubber but has been hit by falling rubber prices due to waning demand from China.
The area is run by Myanmar's most powerful ethnic armed group, which is accused by the United States of running a narco-empire that has flooded Asia with illegal drugs.
Wa leaders have rejected the allegation, saying Washington has blacklisted its leaders for political reasons.
The United Wa State Army (UWSA) boasts some 30,000 soldiers and after decades of isolation, leaders of the self-proclaimed Wa State invited a small group of foreign journalists to visit its territory - a first step in a tentative opening up to the outside world prompted by Aung San Suu Kyi's dramatic victory in a historic general election in Myanmar last year.
Reaching an accord with the Wa and other armed groups is one of the biggest challenges faced by Myanmar's first democratically-elected government in decades, as it grapples with the interlocking issues of ending years of ethnic wars and tackling drug production in its lawless border areas.
At present, much of the money underpinning the Wa's state-within-a-state is widely believed to be derived from the trade in methamphetamine, known locally as "ya ba" or "crazy medicine".
Soaring use of "ya ba", much of it said by experts to come from the so-called "Golden Triangle" that includes the Wa territory, has fuelled hardline anti-narcotics policies in Southeast Asia, such as the bloody "war on drugs" waged by the Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte.
"Yes, Indeed. Between 1999 and 2005, we were involved in trading of drugs but after that it stopped. We are very strict about drugs," said Luo Yaku, the former leader of Drug Eradication in Wa territory, currently an agricultural minister.
The United States indicted several UWSA leaders on heroin and methamphetamine trafficking charges in 2005.
"They are (doing this) for the political interests, which is hard for me to get involved in. Some countries, no matter if they are imposing sanctions or raising this question, are (doing this) for their own national interests, and I can't comment on it," Zhao Guo An, Wa Foreign Minister, adding:
"The problem of ya ba (methamphetamine) cannot be solved by one region. Many of the drugs are brought in from abroad. People continue to defame the Wa State. This is not fair."
Wa leaders say that as part of its push to get rid of poppy, they relocated some 100,000 citizens - a sixth of the population - between 1999 to 2002 to the southern part of the state on the Thai border, where they say the land is more fertile.
Government officials described the relocation as "miserable" and said that "dozens" died along the way because of disease and road accidents.
But local people told Reuters that drug use was a problem in the Wa region, which suffers from a chronic lack of basic government services.
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