CHIANG MAI - Thailand is losing its latest war on drugs as methamphetamine,
heroin, opium, ketamine, cocaine and ecstasy continue to flood across its
porous borders. A rise in production and trafficking related to tensions
between Myanmar's military government and narco-trafficking ethnic insurgent
groups based near the Thai border have undermined Bangkok's efforts, according
to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) annual world report.
Large narcotics seizures have increased in Thailand over the past year. The
English-language daily Bangkok Post reported the seizure of over 300,000
methamphetamine pills in Bangkok on May 29. On June 22, police in the northern
province of Chiang Mai intercepted a six-wheel truck en route to Bangkok with
1.2 million methamphetamine tablets on board.
Thailand in April 2009 embarked on its so-called "Five Fences"
counter-narcotics campaign, aimed at curbing trafficking and
abuse at the national, district and village levels. The strategy states: "Each
fence is aimed at controlling drug abusers, drug traffickers and groups of
people who are sensitive to drug abuse (potential drug demand) in order to
build up the front line to prevent drugs and control drug problems
A so-called "border fence" aims to monitor and interdict cross-border narcotics
trafficking, mainly from Myanmar and Laos. Through a "community fence", people
and civil society are encouraged to participate in anti-drugs activities. The
"society fence" aims to combine social order with efforts to control
entertainment venues, dormitories and other places where drugs are purchased
and used. The "school fence" aims to integrate an anti-drugs message into the
Ministry of Education's outreach program. The "family fence" promotes
participation of families to prevent drug use.
The initial phase of the strategy lasted from April to September 2009. A second
phase inaugurated by Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban on November 12,
2009, is slated to run through December this year. The phase underway is
intended to have a more proactive role in monitoring the drug situation.
The government's drug fight has been comparatively low key and less violent
than the notorious 2003 "war on drugs" initiated by former prime minister
Thaksin Shinawatra. At the time, Thaksin's campaign was heavily criticized by
rights groups and the international community for its heavy-handedness and lack
of accountability among security forces.
According to a 2004 Human Rights Watch report, Thaksin's campaign resulted in
2,275 extrajudicial killings, with most of the deaths believed to have executed
by the police. Despite international criticism and the orgy of violence,
Thaksin's campaign was well received by many Thais polled at the time.
Nonetheless, the campaign has been the subject of two government investigations
since Thaksin's ouster in a 2006 military coup.
The latest investigation comes after a crackdown against a two-month protest by
anti-government demonstrators loyal to Thaksin that resulted in 90 deaths and
more than 1,800 injuries. The previous investigation found that while
shoot-to-kill orders came from above, there was insufficient evidence to charge
Thaksin with the extrajudicial killings.
A gentler war
While largely devoid of the deaths that marked Thaksin's campaign, numerous
shootouts between security forces and cross-border narcotics traffickers as
well as drug dealers in central Thailand have occurred.
One incident of possible abuse was highlighted in the local media in June when
a drug suspect was arrested after a shootout that resulted in the death of a
police official and the suspect's girlfriend. Police said the suspect was shot
and killed while making a grab for a gun, despite his hands being handcuffed
behind his back at the time.
Thai anti-narcotics officials have become increasingly concerned about the
growing amounts of methamphetamine, known locally as yaba, being
produced and smuggled across the border from Myanmar. Increasingly, yaba
produced in Myanmar is being transshipped via a growing road network in Laos
with crossings into Thailand's northeastern region.
Anti-narcotic efforts have been complicated by renewed tensions between the
Myanmar government and various ethnic insurgent groups in northern Myanmar,
many of which are also heavily involved in the production and trafficking of
Groups such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the National Democratic
Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (NDAA) have expanded production to purchase
more weapons for what many observers believe is a coming showdown with the
At issue is the regime's plan for ethnic insurgent groups to join
centrally-controlled Border Guard Forces. The UWSA and other ethnic groups are
uneasy about joining the force out of fear of losing any negotiating leverage
they currently have once their armed wings are absorbed into the military.
Several government deadlines have passed - the most recent on April 29 - and it
currently appears that the regime may wait to force the issue until after
general elections slated for later this year.
UNODC representative Gary Lewis recently told reporters that 23 million
methamphetamine pills had been seized in Myanmar last year, a substantial
increase from the one million seized in 2008. He said the greater seizures
reflected a rise in production rather than improved interdiction efforts.
Echoing statements made by Thai military, police and counter-narcotics
officials, Lewis said pressure for ethnic groups to join Border Guard Forces
had contributed to rising production.
The UNODC also noted a "steep and dramatic" increase in opium cultivation in
its yearly opium survey and recent world report. While production is still well
below levels of the 1990s, and far behind that in the world's largest producer,
Afghanistan, the UNODC says there is a risk of the situation "unraveling".
Lewis' statements may also reflect a rising awareness in the UN that the drug
trade in Myanmar is intertwined with the country's decades-long ethnic and
political problems. Until recently, the UN had praised many of the ethnic
organizations in northern Myanmar for their counter-narcotics and crop
substitution efforts. Most previous UN narcotics reports focused on the drastic
reduction in opium cultivation and heroin production, while almost ignoring the
rising manufacture of synthetic drugs, including yaba.
Those assessments had dovetailed with the regime's interests. By separating
narcotics and politics, the UN has ignored the junta's role in allowing groups
- which had predominately been former members of the Burmese Communist Party
until a 1989 mutiny - to trade in narcotics in exchange for ceasefires with the
government. The ceasefires benefited the military politically by allowing it to
focus on suppressing other armed ethnic groups and the pro-democracy movement,
and economically through the creation of large business conglomerates and banks
by narco-traffickers turned businessmen with ties to the regime.
Now in stronger administrative control of the country and with democratic
elections on the horizon, the junta is aiming to fold the ceasefire groups'
military wings into the army while encouraging their political wings to contest
the elections. The larger ceasefire groups have resisted these efforts and in
turn the regime has started to vilify their former allies-of-convenience for
their roles in the drug trade.
Myanmar's military offensive against the Kokang group in August 2009 is the
most glaring example of the regime's shifting attitude. Narcotics was cited as
one of the pretexts for the attack against the Kokang, which the regime had
previously praised for its drug eradication efforts. Indeed, production
facilities and large amounts of narcotics were seized in the aftermath of the
attack which sent thousands of refugees fleeing across the border into China.
Several large shipments, many believed to be tied to the UWSA, have recently
been seized along the border with Thailand, particularly near the Myanmar town
of Tachilek. Observers say these types of seizures would have never happened in
the recent past because of government complicity in the trade.
Much of the amphetamines seized in 2009 came from the Kokang attack and other
large UWSA shipments, and were designed to pressure the groups for political
purposes; namely to get them to conform to the junta's 2010 election plans.
That hasn't happened so far and until it does Thailand will be hard-pressed to
win its latest war on drugs.
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached