What an intriguing idea - an international police conference on heroin to be held in Rangoon, opium capital of the world. Critics pounced and claimed it was akin to staging a meeting on women's rights in Kabul or an anti-terrorism seminar in Tripoli. Not surprisingly, it is already quickly degenerating to a diplomatic debacle that analysts fear will do little for either Interpol or the Burmese drug trade. Washington sources confirmed to the Post that the US Drug Enforcement Agency will join a boycott that now extends to at least five European Union countries led by Britain. Many other states across Europe and the Americas remain undecided about attending an event due to start on February 23. Even Colombia, a nation that is to cocaine what Burma is to the dreaded poppy, is considering taking the moral high ground and keeping its representatives home. But in the midst of the frantic manoeuvring it is becoming clear that the motives are not so much concerns over the drug situation but sheer politics. In explaining their decision to keep their Rangoon-based agents away from the conference hall, US diplomats speak from a prepared line that acknowledges recent efforts by Burma's ruling junta to stem the trade. 'The United States believes that the Burmese regime could use the conference to create the false impression that it demonstrates international approval by Interpol and participating countries of its narcotics performance,' one official said. Senior British sources were even more frank. 'This is not about drugs for us, it is purely political,' one said. Burma's regional neighbours, of course, are being far more pragmatic. So much then for Interpol's treasured sense of neutrality. Privately, some police officers fear a great chance for co-operation could be lost by diplomatic point-scoring. The conference was to be the fourth such bash devoted to heroin - events which previously have proved crucial to a global crackdown, officers say. The shadowy organisation that links the forces of 177 countries to track and apprehend major international criminals has long operated outside the margins of politics and diplomacy. Its diverse membership is united by a charter that fosters independence by preventing any involvement in political, military, religious or race cases. What it will all mean for Burma's role as the world's biggest supplier of opium in an expanding global heroin trade remains to be seen. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has been among the most fierce critics, frequently warning that a narco-state is brewing. She has repeatedly slammed the generals for allowing drug money to 'taint legitimate investment and threaten the region'. After taking a diplomatic pounding for peace deals with former heroin warlords, such as Khun Sa, and allowing them to amble freely about Rangoon, the generals have been staging dozens of seizures and ceremonial burnings of opium and heroin over the past few months. Foreign agents on the ground are privately quick to divorce official propaganda on all sides from reality. Senior junta figures could be corrupt as individuals but the regime as a whole is supporting eradication efforts, they insist. In Rangoon, the military is already expressing its frustration and trying to portray itself as a victim. 'Unfortunately drugs are not just a Third World problem . . . Myanmar [Burma] believes that user countries are as much responsible as the countries that are regarded as suppliers,' a regime spokesman said.