Burma's warlords hope to make friends in the outside world with a ban on opium

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Kya Lew's cheeks are deeply creased from sucking his opium pipe. He has much to ponder. In the autumn, this respected village elder's poppy crop was stunted from drought. Last week, he prayed that his next harvest will be more bountiful.

For Chairman Bao Youxiang, the rebel supremo of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), has decreed that the opium poppies planted later this year here in Burma's Shan state must be the last.

All opium in Wa-ruled territory, which makes up the Burmese corner of the narcotic trade's Golden Triangle and ultimately provides the raw material for most of the heroin syringes in America and Australia and 10 per cent of European smack, is to be banned by July next year.

Violators who grow, smoke or traffic opium next summer will face execution.

Only addicts aged 60 or above will be spared. It is a drastic policy change by the Wa chieftain, who admits that illicit drugs financed his 15,000 guerrillas for decades, which threatens the survival of a quarter million tribal people who depend on the poppy harvest to eke out a living.

A United Nations programme to introduce sustainable food crops to these remote hill people is working against the clock. Veteran aid workers warn that a humanitarian crisis looms over Burma's northeastern frontier, which is shared with China, Laos and Thailand.

Without outside assistance, relocating thousands of villagers into malarial lowlands that can grow sufficient rice is likely to worsen their plight. "The world cannot just neglect these opium farmers," said Jeremy Milson, who co-ordinates the Wa area development project for the UNs' Office on Drugs and Crime.

Everything hinges on the word of Chairman Bao, who was blacklisted by the United States as a "foreign narcotics kingpin" just two years ago.

Mr Bao insists that the Wa will start lopping the heads off poppies and, by next summer, eliminate a cash crop which the British introduced 120 years ago. "If we have any more opium here after 2005," Bao has vowed repeatedly, "you can come and chop my head off."

Just down the road from the UWSA's main garrison, Mr Bao repudiated his drug profiteering past. He even acknowledged that his younger brother was recently demoted for links with Chinese methamphetamine traffickers and was forced to undergo a detox regime.

The old Communist fighter denied any part in the burgeoning trade of synthetic stimulant pills, which he claims is run by Chinese crime syndicates. "There is no processing here. We do not have the capability or chemicals to produce these drugs," Mr Bao said.

Shrugging off charges of using forced labour and child soldiers in his autonomous domain, Chairman Bao tackles one reform at a time. "Our people are poor and illiterate. Sometimes they must be forced to work in projects for their well-being," he said. Since 1989, when Mr Bao negotiated a truce with the Burmese junta after 25 years of insurgency, most of the 400,000 ethnic Wa in Burma have stayed mired in poverty while development across the border in China's Yunnan province surged.

Bribery and influence peddling has secured a few élite Wa businessmen a foothold down in Mandalay and Rangoon, where they flourish as property tycoons or wealthy traders.

Yet Western aid agencies are increasingly willing to hold their noses and work with the Wa and the junta. This week, Japan pledged $300,000 (£170,000) to the UN's World Food Programme for emergency rations for the Kokang region in northern Shan state, where a self-imposed poppy ban is already in place.

A European diplomat in Rangoon said: "Through this work, neither the Burmese government nor the Wa will gain legitimacy or financial benefits. Local communities are the sole target. Burma's poor should not be put at double jeopardy because of the junta."

To administer the autonomous area that the Burmese generals call Special Region 2, the Wa have traditionally demanded a 10 per cent tax on opium income, double the fee for rice producers. With a straight face, Mr Bao vowed to suspend all agricultural taxes for the next three years in order to eradicate opium production.

Police Colonel Hkam Awng, joint secretary of the central committee for drug abuse control in Rangoon, said satellite surveys and ground checks back up Mr Bao's claims of poppy reduction. "I believe him," he said. " He is sincere and a humble man."

UN statistics verify that poppy cultivation areas have decreased by 64 per cent across Burma in the past seven years. More than one-third of these opium-producing poppy fields grow in the Wa-controlled region, which is the country's largest single producer.

One-quarter of Burma's poppy harvest is consumed domestically, since opium is the local drug of choice. About 4 per cent of the rural population become addicts.

The Rangoon generals are incensed that their totalitarian regime's efforts to stamp out illicit drug production have won such little international recognition. Public relations do matter to the junta. And lately, the junta's Wa partners seem to be just as fussy about its image.

Kya Wen Xing, a regional Wa security officer, said: "We cannot afford to be the wild people in the mountains any more. Opium does not make us friends in the outside world."