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Thailand's War on Drugs

According to Thai military officials, the foremost threat to Thailand's national security -- greater than any since the communist insurgency of the 1970s and early 1980s -- lies along the northern border. It consists of a mass of highly addictive methamphetamine pills, (known locally as ya ba, which translates to "crazy medicine") produced in Myanmar for the Thai market by the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

Thai military authorities were fully aware of developments that had major implications for both Thai society and Thai border security. Indeed, the narcotics threat had been defined as the pre-eminent threat to national security, and narcotics interdiction had become a major task of the military. This change of mood was largely linked to the assumption of RTA command in 1998 by General Surayud. The 55-year-old Surayud emerged as a determined reformist generally opposed to military involvement in commercial activities and in particular to 'business as usual' on the northern border.

Following a period of heightened cross-border tensions, in August 1999 the border crossing point at San Ton Du was abruptly closed on Gen Surayud's orders. In October all other border crossing points were closed as a result of Yangon's anger over Bangkok's defusing of the embassy hostage crisis, when students who had seized the embassy were helicoptered by Thai authorities back to the border and released. By December 1999, relations had thawed sufficiently for the main crossing points to be re-opened and trade resumed. Nevertheless, despite pressure from Thai commercial interests eager for Wa contracts, San Ton Du has remained firmly closed.

The August 1999 closure of San Ton Du was followed in October by a reshuffle in command and deployments in the northern Third Army region. Third Army command was taken over by Lieutenant General Wattanachai Chaimuengwong. Simultaneously, a troop rotation on the key border sector opposite the Wa in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces involved border security and interdiction duties being taken over by the Pamuang Task Force (TF), one of two northern border task forces., The Pamuang TF was deployed earlier on the northern Thai-Laotian border and is composed of elements of the Petchabun-based First Cavalry Division supported by the 17th Regiment of the Phitsanuloke-based 4th Infantry Division.

The Pamuang TF, headquartered on Chiang Mai and commanded by 1st Cavalry Divisional commander, Major General Somboonkiat Sitthidecha, assumed tighter control of other forces on the border, specifically the Border Patrol Police (BPP), Rangers, provincial police and other police units. This shake-up effectively disrupted numerous cozy relationships established along the border between the Wa and elements of the Thai security forces -- not least the Rangers who generally man forward positions.

Lt Gen Wattanachai, the then Third Army commander, also urged the national Security Council to set up a powerful inter-provincial administrative body to co-ordinate all security issues, in particular narcotics, in the four northern provinces bordering Myanmar: Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son and Tak. Such a body would, in effect, be modeled on the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Commission that oversees the sensitive Muslim-majority provinces on the Malaysian border.

The proposal was vetoed in favor of involving the already existing Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) more closely in narcotics interdiction and suppression. The ISOC, originally tasked with coordinating anti-communist operations that have long since ceased, has both a budget and a cross-border mandate and is now the main policy coordinating agency in narcotics interdiction and suppression.

Following the border inspection by General Boonlert Kaewprasit, in early February 2000, the RTA Narcotics Suppression Committee chief, a proposal for the formation of an "elite force" to "deal firmly" with drug traffickers was put to RTA commander Gen Surayud. It was suggested in the local press that the force might be similar to that used to deal with Khun Sa -- a reference to a major 1982 assault by hundreds of Thai special forces on the village of Baan Hin Taek in Chiang Rai province that finally pushed the Sino-Shan warlord out of Thailand and back into Myanmar.

The presence in Mong Yawn, of engineers, teachers and what appeared to be political advisers from the People's Republic of China (PRC) did not mitigate Thai concern over developments along the northern border. In RTA intelligence circles it was assumed that these personnel were working in UWSA areas with the knowledge and approval of either the central government or provincial authorities in Yunnan. Less clear, however, was what their presence portended. Benign interpretations suggested that Chinese authorities were anxious to assist with development aid for schemes aimed at weaning the UWSA away from its involvement in narcotics. Certainly, since the early 1990s, the PRC had suffered an explosion of heroin abuse (and AIDS) as a result of high-grade heroin smuggled from Kokang and the Wa Hills, through southwest China to Hong Kong, Taiwan and North America. In early 1994, UWSA Chief Pao You-chang was reportedly summoned to Kunming, Yunnan's provincial capital, for a stern warning from Chinese security officials on keeping narcotics out of the PRC.

In January 2000, both then Royal Thai Army (RTA) commander General Surayud Chulanont and Thai Armed Forces Supreme Commander General Mongkol Ampornpisit inspected troops along the northern border. They were followed in early February by General Boonlert Kaewprasit, head of the RTA's Narcotics Suppression Committee, who, after a three day tour of the (northern) Third Army Region stated that: "The situation is now quite critical and decisive action inevitable."

The impact of methamphetamine abuse in Thai society over the past several years has reached crisis proportions. From an early user-base among sugar cane workers and long distance truck-drivers, Myanmar- produced methamphetamine has spread to infiltrate homes, schools, offices and factories throughout the country. The pandemic of 'ya ba' has left in its wake a widening swathe of organized crime, official corruption, street violence and broken families. The impact among youths and students has been most severe. A September 1999 survey of 32 of Thailand's 76 provinces, including Bangkok, found that 12.4 per cent of youth in secondary and tertiary education were either using or dealing drugs and nearly 55 per cent of that group were using methamphetamines.

A variety of insurgent groups inside Myanmar are involved in various drug production and trafficking activities. However, it is believed that all of the methamphetamine tablets smuggled into Thailand last year were produced in areas controlled by the UWSA. RTA. Some reports have stated that up to a billion tablets were smuggled into Thailand in 2003 from UWSA labs in Myanmar.

The government estimated that three million Thais, or five percent of the population, were methamphetamine users. Prime Minister Thaksin's war against drugs produced some results. Between February and August 2003, over 51,000 arrests and 2000 extra-judicial deaths have occurred, causing worry among human rights watchers. Thaksin is still unsatisfied with the results and has threatened harsh action against Wa drug traffickers if Burma does not act. In addition, scandals have also brought police corruption to the public forefront; an issue in which Thaksin must contend. After five months of closure, borders reopened with Burma, but differences remain over boundary alignment and the handling of ethnic rebels, refugees, and illegal cross-border activities, especially illicit transfer of drugs.

Thailand's War on Drugs "victory" was temporary. PM Thaksin's campaign has decimated the drug market at the local drug trafficker and street-user level, but it has not reduced cross-border trafficking or attacked the drug trade's higher elements. Additionally, his battle against "Dark Influences" has been ineffective, with few arrests of note. Thailand's King has even tactfully admonished PM Thaksin for his ebullient trumpeting of a victory, when in fact the war is far from over. Burma and Laos are still major contributors to Thailand's drug problem, and most major Thai druglords remain free. In fact, traffickers have simply changed routes or are storing their product in border areas awaiting a time for safe shipment. While Thaksin's "war" has had a major impact on Thailand's drug problem, it should be viewed as a relatively successful campaign in a long war, and not as a victorious end to the war itself.

Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, while highly praising the prime minister, also called him to task during the King's birthday speech. The King requested a full inquiry into all drug related deaths - a request celebrated by Human Rights and Health agencies. However the investigation is not going to be conducted by an independent source, so it is widely believed that the police and government agencies will be exonerated. The King also tactfully attempted to tell the PM that, while victory may be claimed, the drug war is far from over. PM Thaksin accepted the admonishment as a learning tool and promised to execute the King's wishes. Prime Minister Thaksin has initiated talks with Burma and Laos to discuss more stringent border control measures.

While these country's leaders are publicly accepting many of the plans for stemming drug flow from their countries, very little implementation has actually occurred. This has caused the PM to vacillate between rage at Burma and full support for Burma's junta, much to the dismay of the United States. Additionally, drug production in these countries did not stop for Thailand's war on drugs, though cross border trafficking was severely curtailed. According to some sources this resulted in around 800 million yaba tablets being stored along the Thai/Burma border waiting for the anti-drug pressure to subside. PM Thaksin has also begun a second war, this one a war on dark influences, aimed at eliminating the high level drug traffickers and the government personnel protecting or backing them. This war has had very few published successes as the financial and political backing of these influential people is deeply intertwined with Thaksin's own government. His second war will take much longer and show no clear, quantifiable victory, but, if successful, will do more to defeat drug use in the long run, than his war on drugs did. he PRC has suffered an explosion of heroin abuse (and AIDS) as a result of high-grade heroin smuggled from Kokang and the Wa Hills, through southwest China to Hong Kong, Taiwan and North America. In early 1994, UWSA Chief Pao You-chang was reportedly summoned to Kunming, Yunnan's provincial capital, for a stern warning from Chinese security officials on keeping narcotics out of the PRC.

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Page last modified: 09-06-2013 16:52:35 ZULU