Guest Column

US Drug and Arms Arrests Smear Myanmar Ethnic Armed Organization

By Bertil Lintner 5 May 2022

At a first glance, it seemed like a major achievement by a group of United States crime fighters. An undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent posing as a narcotics and weapons trafficker had managed to secure evidence leading to the arrest of a leader of a Yakuza organized crime gang, as well as of three Thais of whom two have military backgrounds, over a plot to use drugs as payment for sophisticated US-made weaponry. 

According to documents supplied by the DEA to a court in New York on January 19 and made public in April, three ethnic armies in Myanmar — the Karen National Union (KNU), the Shan State Army (SSA) and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) — needed the weapons, including “ten FIM-92J Stinger surface-to-air-missiles”, automatic rifles and mortars for their fight against the Myanmar junta. The payment for the whole shipment would be 500 kilograms of methamphetamine and 500 kilograms of heroin or US$40 million, presumably in cash or by bank transfer. The court document also states that “the buyers would build an airstrip to receive delivery of the weapons by cargo plane.”

But to anyone familiar with the Golden Triangle drug trade, this sounds a highly unlikely story. The KNU has for more than a year been subjected to aerial attacks launched by the Myanmar Air Force, and so would need such MANPADS, or man-portable defense systems, but the group would not be able to produce any drugs to pay for them because it has never been involved in the narcotics trade, nor would it have US$40 million in its coffers. 

The SSA, which here is the Shan State Army-South, the armed wing of the Thai-border based Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) [the rival SSA-North is based in northern Shan State and is the armed wing of the Shan State Progress Party], on October 15, 2015 became one of the signatories of what the Myanmar authorities call the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Thus, it is not engaged in any war with the Myanmar military. 

The court document goes on to state that the UWSA needs the weapons because they are “fighting the government of Myanmar” but, as anyone following events in the country’s frontier areas knows, that is utterly incorrect. The UWSA has not signed the NCA but it has had an informal ceasefire agreement with Myanmar’s central authorities since 1989. The Wa have a formidable armed force, probably as many as 20,000 or 30,000 men, but the only battles the UWSA has fought since 1989 are with the RCSS and its predecessor, the Möng Tai Army of the late druglord Khun Sa. And neither of those groups has or has had any aircraft that would have to be shot down. Although the UWSA is not fighting the Myanmar army, it keeps a vast arsenal of weapons to deter any attempt by central authorities to move into its areas along the Myanmar-China border — and that includes a significant number of Chinese-made FN-6 MANPADS. In other words, there is no reason why the Wa would want to buy expensive and more-difficult-to-use American Stingers.

Then there is the question of the airfield “the buyers” were supposed to build for the cargo plane that was going to deliver the goods to them. How on earth would that work? And how would any cargo plane loaded with heavy weapons be able to fly undetected through Thai airspace — which it would have to — then land at some clearing in the jungle and take off again? That detail alone lends credence to the suggestion by local sources in the area that this is nothing more than a cock-and-bull story. A closer look at the names mentioned in the court document also reinforces that conclusion. 

Takeshi Ebisawa handling a rocket launcher at a meeting with undercover agents in February 2021. / Department of Justice

The alleged “leader of the Yakuza transnational organized crime syndicate,” who was going to supply the weapons is identified as Takeshi Ebisawa and the document even has a picture of him showing one of the MANPADS at a meeting with the undercover DEA agent. But Yakuza is the common name for a wide range of minor, middle-sized and larger Japanese crime syndicates and the name of this particular group is not mentioned anywhere in the submission to the court. Regardless of the size of the group, the leader himself would in any way not be involved in such deals; that is something his underlings would do in order to give their boss plausible deniability if anyone is caught.

The question of the actual identities of the three Thai middlemen is also a mystery. One of them, Suksan “Bobby” Jullanan, is referred to as “a Thai air force general.” But the Royal Thai Air Force does not have any generals. The highest rank is that of Air Chief Marshal followed by an Air Marshal, an Air Vice Marshal and so on. The second Thai defendant, Sompak Rukrasaranee, is supposed to be “a retired Thai military officer.” But no former rank or name of the regiment he once, allegedly, belonged to are mentioned in the documents. The third, Somphop Singhasiri is identified only as “a Thai national.” And then there is a “CC-1”, or Co-Conspirator 1, who is not named but is described as “the chairman of the Restoration Council of Shan State.” That, of course, is Yawd Serk, who is not an underground figure or a fugitive from justice. He has taken part in several peace talks with the Myanmar military and traveled freely to and from Yangon as well as Naypyitaw.

Curiously, a fourth prospective buyer is also named in the documents: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group that was completely crushed by the Sri Lankan army in 2009. But the DEA seems to believe that the LTTE “continues to attract international financial support.” Apparently, Ebisawa had some contacts with an unnamed former LTTE official who — it is unclear — is either in prison in India or has been released due to efforts of the alleged Yakuza leader.

In the end, all that the DEA appears to have ended up with is the arrest of a talkative Japanese fraudster— and three Thai conmen who no one inside Myanmar seems to have heard of. That, in turn, raises the question whether pure incompetence and ignorance of the situation of the ground led to those arrests, of if there could be a more sinister agenda behind this remarkably implausible story. Could it even be the outcome of an interdepartmental feud within the US administration? That is an issue that has troubled Myanmar policymakers in Washington for decades. The US State Department has always been consistent in its support for Myanmar’s pro-democracy forces and opposition to autocratic, military rule. The DEA’s agents, on the other hand, have been much more willing to cooperate with the Myanmar military because they believe they are on the same side in the war on drugs — and despite that fact that much of the drug trade is carried out by local, government-recognized militias.

After the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and the massacres of demonstrators in Yangon and cities and towns all over the country, the then US ambassador Burton Levin was firm in his condemnation of the then junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), and ordered his staff to cease regular meetings with the military authorities. The first to ignore those directives was DEA agent Gregory Korniloff, who was told to leave Yangon in December 1988 after making an unsuccessful attempt to arrange an unauthorized meeting with officials of the Myanmar military’s intelligence service. At the time, Korniloff was said to be eager to resume normal ties with the military leadership in Yangon, which he claimed had made significant headway in fighting the narcotics trade. 

The controversy reached new heights in March 1991, when it was discovered that another Yangon-based DEA officer, Angelo Saladino, had authored a secret memorandum addressed to Myanmar’s powerful and ruthless intelligence chief, Major General Khin Nyunt. Dated March 15, 1991, the letter listed in detail the various ways that the Myanmar military might try to impress the US Government as well as United Nations agencies. It also provided specific suggestions on ways to “deprive many of Myanmar’s most vocal critics of some of their shopworn, yet effective weapons in the campaign to discredit [Myanmar’s] narcotics program.” Finally, Saladino recommended several options to the junta for silencing “its most biased critics.”

It took some time before Washington discovered the memorandum. When noises were made, Saladino reportedly flew back to the DEA’s headquarters in the US at his own expense. He managed to convince his superiors that he had not, after all, sent the memorandum to Khin Nyunt. A compromise was reached with the State Department: Saladino had his tour of duty in Myanmar officially curtailed but was allowed to serve out his term which only had a few more months to run.

It is too early to say whether history is repeating itself, but by dragging the KNU into this conundrum, the DEA is discrediting an ethnic group which is serving as host for hundreds of pro-democracy activists who, since last year’s February 1 coup, have sought refuge in the areas near the Thai border that the KNU controls. Many are involved in armed struggle, while others are running news and blog sites on the internet and getting support from the US government and private donors. How, and if, this court case will affect that support remains to be seen. But the DEA, eager to resume contacts with Myanmar’s military authorities, has done the pro-democracy movement a huge disservice — and on dubious grounds which will not have any impact on the flow of narcotics out of Southeast Asia. 

Entrapment is illegal in most countries [but not the US] because law enforcement officers are supposed to fight crime, not encourage easily-duped individuals to commit ones. And all that the DEA has been able to produce when it comes to drugs is a photograph allegedly sent by Signal to or from Singhasiri (spelt Sanghasiri on the screengrab) showing a bag of Double UO Globe heroin which could have been taken anytime and even downloaded from the internet.

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