Laos tackles its drug problem

Premier Thongloun Sisoulith's anti-narcotics drive has netted several alleged 'big fish', but official complicity in the illicit trade will be harder to uproot

Laos has launched an anti-drug campaign that claims to have nabbed top suspects in its growing illegal narcotics trade. Photo: Getty Images
Laos has launched an anti-drug campaign that claims to have nabbed top suspects in its growing illegal narcotics trade. Photo: Getty Images

Five alleged drug kingpins have been arrested in Laos since Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith launched an anti-narcotics campaign in September, part of his communist regime’s bid to tackle endemic corruption, rising crime rates and regional perceptions the country has emerged as a major source and transit route of illegal narcotics.

The drug trade is “an obstacle to national social and economic development, and an important source of crime and corruption, not to mention a tremendous loss for drug victims and their families,” Thongloun, a ‘reformist’ apparatchik who was elected prime minister at last year’s Congress of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, recently said.

In January, alleged Lao drug trafficker Xaysana Keopimpha, dubbed in news reports as the “Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] drug lord” with a trafficking network which supposedly extends from Myanmar to Malaysia, was arrested at Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi Airport.

The arrest came after a five-month joint investigation by Thai and Lao authorities, with the break in the case coming after the arrest of one of his alleged associates. Xaysana, who has reportedly denied the charges, went on trial today on drug-related offenses at a criminal court in Bangkok.

Before his arrest, Xaysana did not shy away from public attention. He regularly attended high-profile events in Laos and openly posted photographs of his substantial luxury car collection on social media, according to media reports.

After days of silence from the Lao government following the arrest, Thonglek Mangnormek, director general of the Lao General Police Department, announced that at least two dozen members of Xaysana’s alleged cartel had also been arrested as part of the government’s anti-drug campaign.

Weapons and cash have been seized from alleged cartel members, while hard assets, including restaurants, hotels and gas stations, have been frozen.

Suspected Laotian drug kingpin Xaysana Keopimpha (C) arrives at a criminal court in Bangkok on April 18, 2017.The Laos national denied being a major regional drug smuggler at a Bangkok court on April 18 in a case that has ensnared Thai celebrities and shone a spotlight on communist Laos' lynchpin role in fuelling the trade. / AFP PHOTO / LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA
Suspected Lao drug kingpin Xaysana Keopimpha (C) arrives at a criminal court in Bangkok on April 18, 2017. The Lao national denied being a major regional drug smuggler. Photo: AFP / Lillian Suwanrumpha

Lao authorities have also arrested Khonepasong Soukkaseum, known as Xiengtheu, whose alleged drug trafficking outfit is believed to be larger than Xaysana’s. Thonglek described Xaysana and Khonepasong as the “big fish” of drug trafficking in Laos. The identities of the other three arrested and detained so-called “kingpins” have not been publicly disclosed.

Landlocked Laos is known to be a major transit route for methamphetamine produced in China and Myanmar that is shipped south to Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and overseas. The country also lies on the eastern tip of the so-called Golden Triangle, the world’s second largest area of opium production, according to United Nations estimates.

Domestic use of methamphetamine, known locally as “yaba”, or crazy medicine, is also known to be on the rise in Laos, particularly among the younger generation.

The drug trade, as with other forms of illicit activity in Laos, is hampered by official complicity. At a session of the National Assembly in 2014, Minister of Public Security Somkeo Silavong admitted that traffickers frequently bribe police, prosecutors and judges.

“Some high-ranking officials facilitate drug trafficking so it’s hard to address the problem,” he said.

Former Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong's government  delivers his remarks during the closing ceremony of the 27th Association of Southeast Asian Nations ( ASEAN ) Summit in Kuala Lumpur on November 22, 2015. China came under renewed criticism over its rising profile in the South China Sea as it jostled with the United States for regional influence at the conclusion to a week of top-level diplomacy.   AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA / AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA
Former Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong’s government was hounded by corruption allegations. Photo: AFP/Manan Vatsyayana

When former Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong assumed the national leadership in 2010, he also launched an anti-drug campaign in his first months in office. But his six-year tenure was marred by widespread corruption allegations, according to analysts.

Thongsing’s son and daughter-in-law, Sommaly Thammavong, were photographed with Xaysana in portraits spread over social media following the alleged kingpin’s arrest in mid-January. Sommaly publicly distanced herself from Xaysana, saying they met “by accident” at public events and never did business together, according to media reports.

That’s nonetheless reaffirmed public speculation, including an unusually lively debate over social media in Laos’ authoritarian context, about possible linkages between top-level politicians and alleged drug traffickers.

“[Xaysana] was arrested in Thailand because the police there know that he is protected in Laos by powerful political figures,” Radio Free Asia quoted one legal expert living in the country.

That view was, perhaps unintentionally, supported by Thai police Major-General Sommai Kongwisaisuk, who was quoted saying: “Lao authorities said to us that if we couldn’t arrest [Xaysana] here, they wouldn’t be able to do anything in Laos.”

Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith at the Asean Summit Retreat. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu
Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith has won public support for his anti-corruption campaign. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

Lao police director-general Thonglek said in February that his government was looking into whether to request Xaysana’s extradition from Thailand. As his trial begins in Bangkok, it appears the request was not seriously pursued.

While it would have been a strong statement of change if Xaysana had stood trial in Laos, there are other indications that the latitude once given to traffickers is waning.

Prime Minister Thongloun has won public support for his high profile efforts to tackle endemic corruption and bureaucratic mismanagement, issues that have long irked local Laos who have been denied the vote in one of world’s last remaining communist countries.

Since his rise, Thongloun has stepped up audits of officials’ assets, leading to a number of arrests on corruption related charges. The arrest of Xaysana and Khonepasong, among dozens of other alleged drug traffickers, is making headway in suppressing its narcotics trade.

A police officer displays "yaba" tablets, or methamphetamine mixed with caffeine, for the media in front of the Narcotics Suppression Division in Bangkok on February 1, 2017. 720,000 tablets of "yaba", or metamphetamine, alongside 87 kilos of "ice", or crystal meth, were confiscated from drug traffickers in the southern Thai district of Had Yai on January 26, and the Northern Thai district of Udon Thani on January 29.  / AFP PHOTO / LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA
A Thai police officer displays “yaba” tablets, or methamphetamine mixed with caffeine, at the Narcotics Suppression Division in Bangkok on February 1, 2017. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwarnrumpha

Last year, the police arrested 3,740 people on drug-related crimes, according to the Drug Prevention and Control Department of the Ministry of Public Security. The arrests included seizures of more than 1,869 kilograms of amphetamine, 188kg of heroin, 425kg of cannabis, 144kg of crystal methamphetamine.

Lao authorities have also stepped up regional cooperation in recent months, including through a high-level meeting with Chinese officials in November to discuss responses to cross-border trafficking. In January, Laos lent its support to Cambodia as it launched upon its own anti-drug campaign.

How much of Thongloun’s campaign can be chalked up to publicity and intra-party politicking is still unclear. In February, his government announced that several individuals had been arrested after trying to bribe officials for the release of prominent drug traffickers.

Local media reported that almost US$860,000 had been offered for the release of each of the arrested five drug kingpins. It’s a testament to Thongloun’s campaign that the attempted bribes were made public and their sources have joined their apparent drug bosses behind bars.

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