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How Narcotics have shaped everything for the Wa, an ethnic minority in Myanmar


We have a glimpse this morning of life inside Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle. That's the name for a region that produces a lot of the world's opium, the raw material for heroin, among other things. The Golden Triangle covers parts of several nations, and the most remote part of all is in the far reaches of Myanmar. The mountains there include an area that is effectively an independent nation of its own, which reporter Patrick Winn has been trying to understand.

What is it like to drive in there and move around? What do you see?

PATRICK WINN: You're not going to be driving in there. Usually people will go in on dirt footpaths and extremely, I would say almost violently sculpted terrain. So we're talking about mountain ranges that are really, really severe, in parts as severe as, say, the Rockies. And it's a place where the soil is quite bitter. So it's not very good for growing vegetables, but it just so happens that bitter soil is great for growing the opium poppy.

INSKEEP: This region is so remote that during years of reporting across the whole area, Patrick Winn has never been able to get in, but he was able to gather information about the region and its history. And he's written a book about it called "Narcotopia." He profiles the Wa people, one of Myanmar's many Indigenous minorities. The Wa have managed to build their own unrecognized state on the income from narcotics such as heroin and methamphetamines.

WINN: It really is a world unto its own. It has its own army with more troops than Sweden. It has high-tech weapons. They collect taxes. They even issue their own driver's licenses. You won't find it on any globe. You won't find it on any map. But it absolutely functions like a sovereign nation-state.

INSKEEP: Are they effectively independent from Myanmar's government?

WINN: Not just effectively. They are almost totally independent from Myanmar's government. If a platoon of Myanmar soldiers were to enter, they could be arrested or shot. Everybody knows that you don't go into this area without an invitation.

INSKEEP: Now, as isolated as they are - I'm just looking at a map and seeing that this corner of Myanmar is next to Thailand, which is a U.S. ally, next to Laos, which was of great interest to the United States during the Vietnam War period, next to China, which is of great interest to the United States now. Is there a history of the United States in this otherwise very isolated region?

WINN: Very much so. And the original U.S. entity that was interested in this place was the CIA. What the CIA did manage to do is to use this area as a launching pad for covert missions into Communist China, to steal documents, to tap phone lines, in one story I uncovered to blow up a bridge, to do anything they could to gather intelligence and pull information out of Communist China, which was very, very difficult to access at that time. Later on, other American agencies, namely the DEA, became interested in the area as well because it was churning out so much narcotics, and so much of it was going to the United States.

INSKEEP: OK, so the DEA is not a fan of the Wa or of that area anyway or of their drug activity, but it sounds like the CIA had quite a relationship going. What was in it for the Wa to work with the United States in these covert operations decades ago?

WINN: Growing opium and selling opium is a capitalist endeavor. At the time, the Communist Party was dead set against opium. So if China were to expand into this area, which was a very genuine threat, it would end the opium business, and that would have affected these Wa warlords.

INSKEEP: How effective is the DEA, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, trying to cut back on the drug traffic from this area?

WINN: The DEA has utterly failed. At one point, the DEA actually wanted to work with the Wa to cut this deal. The U.S. would go in and provide education, schools, hospitals, basically to modernize the Wa people. And in return, the Wa would wind down their drug production. But it didn't work out, in part because the CIA did not want it to work out. These different wings of the U.S. government don't always get along, and at that point in time - this is the mid-1990s - the CIA and the DEA wanted very different things from them.

INSKEEP: As you tell this story, it makes me think of somewhat more recent history in Afghanistan, where there also has been immense opium production and mixed views in the United States government about how to approach the people who were doing it because you don't like the opium production necessarily, but you may want other things out of the people who are making it.

WINN: Yeah, I'll tell you, Steve, what a former CIA station chief told me. He said, we recruit bad guys to get intelligence on even bigger bad guys. What the CIA will always do - if it can use anyone to gather intelligence on a rival - Vladimir Putin, Hezbollah, whoever, the Chinese Communist Party - they'll work with that person to achieve a larger goal, which is American supremacy.

INSKEEP: You have a line at the beginning of this book that makes me think, because you point out there are different reputations for different groups of people. The Amish make furniture, and the Wa cook meth, which, I mean, that's a reputation, but it's also a stereotype. Are there things that you were able to learn that added some complexity to this picture of these remote people?

WINN: You know, I'm from Appalachian stock myself. I know the Wa people are also mountain people. I just thought, you know, can they really be as bad as everyone says? In fact, no. I mean, they have to maintain this, you know, pseudo-nation-state with all of these forces bearing down on them. They have to operate at a really sophisticated level. And what I tried to show people in this book is how it is affected by empires such as the American empire.

INSKEEP: How did you come to label them underdogs, the Wa, these people who are connected with the drug trade in this way?

WINN: The Wa people have been targeted by the British Empire, Chinese dynasties, the CIA, the DEA. If that doesn't make you an underdog, I'm really not sure what does. I'm not saying that their government is perfect - far from it. Some really bad things happen in their territory. What I tried to do is treat them like any other government, a government that is run by some big dreamers and some extremely cruel people, with most people just kind of somewhere in between.

INSKEEP: The book is "Narcotopia," and the author is Patrick Winn, who is also the Southeast Asia correspondent for The World. Thanks so much.

WINN: Thanks, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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