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Malaria kills hundreds in Myanmar

BANGKOK: Hundreds of Myanmar villagers have died of malaria and other diseases after being relocated by the government from their poppy farms in the Golden Triangle to mosquito-infested areas, sources said.

The relocation of the Wa community from the mountains near China to the border area near Thailand is part of the Myanmar government's effort to slow down opium production in one of the biggest narcotics producing zones in the world.

A spokesman for Myanmar's military regime said on Thursday that about 400 people have been "seriously infected" mostly with malaria. He said medical teams sent to the area three months ago have brought the disease under control.

But sources at the Thai border with Myanmar put the death toll at between 800 and 2,000 people. "It's absolutely beyond doubt that large numbers of people are very, very sick and many have died because they really have no medical care available," said one respected observer of affairs along the Thai-Myanmar frontier. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

Heavy rains have worsened the situation with reports of other diseases such as dysentery, typhoid and anthrax spread by infected beef also claiming lives. A Thai army intelligence officer in Bangkok, speaking on condition of anonymity, estimated over 1,000 people around Mong Yawn, a Wa town, had died and that army border units have been on alert to prevent residents from the effected area coming to Thailand.

Since January, the Myanmar government has shunted between 130,000 and 180,000 Wa villagers, who used to live on poppy farming, from their mountain villages to hillsides near the Thai border and encouraged them to grow fruit instead of opium.

But the change of environment is proving disastrous, as they lack immunity to disease in lower elevations where drug-resistant strains of mosquitoes spread deadly cerebral malaria. The relocation was done with the approval of the United Wa State Army, described by the US State Department as the world's largest drug-trafficking organisation.

Myanmar hopes the relocation will turn its corner of the Golden Triangle into a drug-free area by 2005. And the UWSA hopes it will help them move into other businesses such as fruit farming.

The UWSA are former insurgents who made peace with Yangon in 1989. They retain their weapons under the agreement and exercise control over large areas of Myanmar's rugged border with Thailand and China, where they produce heroin, derived from opium, and increasingly, methamphetamines.

Health workers in the northern Thai border province of Mae Hong Son are also on guard amid fears that diseases, especially typhoid, could be brought by migrants and refugees from Myanmar, said Songvuthi Huthamai, the provincial health office director. Toon Laikhun, a Myanmar exile, said he has heard about the epidemic from travellers from Myanmar.

"They said five to six people die every single day, mostly children," said Toon of the Shan State News Agency, an information gathering network sympathetic to anti-Myanmar Shan insurgents along the border. (AP)


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