by Satya Sivaraman and Apichart Suttiwong
(IPS) CHIANG MAI, Thailand --
officials are calling the
large-scale smuggling of narcotic methamphetamine pills through their borders
an undeclared "war" on their country by the military regime in neighboring
In response, during the past few months, Thailand has dramatically stepped up its efforts to crack down on trafficking in the pills which it alleges are being produced by certain ethnic groups with close links to the Burmese army in the infamous Golden Triangle area.
Given the murky nature of the drug trade and the longtime involvement of sections of the Thai military, police and political elite in the business, it is not clear whether the crackdown is part of a turf battle within the trade or a genuine attempt to stamp out methamphetamine smuggling.
Analysts say that either way, the unfolding events along the Thai-Burma border are likely to affect relations between the two countries as well as the future role of ethnic rebel groups quite drastically.
step taken by the Thai authorities against the drug smugglers was
the closure, in early August, of a key border checkpoint at San Ton Du in
After a visit by Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai to the northern province of Chiang Mai, the National Security Council (NSC) ordered the closure of the trading point which had been opened to facilitate passage of merchandise to and from Burma.
The main target of the checkpoint closure seems to have been the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a rebel group in northern Burma, which has allegedly taken over the narcotics empire left behind by the notorious drug warlord Khun Sa who surrendered to the Burmese government in late 1996.
The UWSA, an offshoot of the now defunct Burmese Communist Party, is the largest armed ethnic group in Burma with over 20,000 fighters. Earlier based at Pungsang in northern Burma close to the China border, the UWSA has in recent years moved southward closer to Thailand which is major market and transit point for various narcotics.
According to Thai officials the Wa have been consolidating their hold over territory earlier under Khun Sa's armed forces and have stepped up smuggling of methamphetamine to Thailand to pay for construction of a new strategic township at Mong Yawn close to the Thai border.
"The checkpoint at San Ton Du had to be closed to deny drug-producers access to Thailand," said Kachadpai Burutpat, the secretary-general of the Thai NSC. He said that between September 1998 and July 1999, Thailand exported gasoline and building materials worth $1.9 million through San Ton Du to Mong Yawn but these exports were minor compared to the flood of methamphetamines smuggled into the kingdom.
About 6,000 Thais are engaged in building projects at Mong Yawn.
The methamphetamine trade, though not new to Thailand, has alarmed the Thai government in recent months because of the rapid increase in its scale and its severe social impact on the youth in both urban and rural areas of north and central Thailand.
Methamphetamine, a powerful central nervous system stimulant is a synthetic drug illegally produced by mixing various toxic and narcotic substances to its parent drug amphetamine. It has many street names including "ice," "crystal" and "speed" while in Thailand it is popularly called 'Ya Ba' or 'Mad Drug.'
The UWSA is allegedly the biggest supplier of the narcotic, producing anywhere between 200 and 400 million pills annually, mostly sold inside Thailand. The pills, which cost around 30 baht (80 cents) at the border and around 100 baht ($2.70) each in Bangkok, are distributed through a large network of peddlers which now includes even school children in some areas.
There are an estimated one million people in Thailand addicted to amphetamines and its various derivatives.
Apart from almost daily reports in the Thai media for the past year about various incidents involving drug-addicts resorting to domestic or public violence, what seems to have shaken up Thai authorities was the gunning down of nine Thai villagers earlier this year in northern Thailand by suspected UWSA soldiers.
Though the nine were believed to have some links with the drug trade, their brazen killing inside Thai territory aroused considerable media attention which has galvanized the government.
Another development alarming the Thai authorities is the notion that the Burmese government is using the UWSA to wage a "proxy" war on Thailand.
Burmese military has long resented Thailand's covert support in the past
to various ethnic groups opposed to Rangoon and is now believed to have
turned the tables on the Thais and used the UWSA as a "buffer" to keep Thai
security forces busy.
In return, the Burmese military has allowed UWSA to set up its own businesses and even a bank in Rangoon, ostensibly to launder money from the narcotics trade. Several senior Burmese generals are believed to be benefitting from the UWSA's drug operations.
"There are indications that the Thai government is waking up to the long term threat of the UWSA to its national security and wants to cut off supply of material to them and their market for drugs before it is too late," says an Asian diplomat in Bangkok.
He also points out that the United States is encouraging the Thais to take on the UWSA as a possible step towards weakening the Burmese government.
"The key to solving the drug problem along the Thai-Burma border lies in exposing the Burmese generals and ousting them from power," says a political analyst in Chiang Mai.
A less charitable view of ongoing anti-narcotic operations along the Thai border is that this is being done at the behest of lobbies within the Thai establishment involved in the trafficking of heroin to the West.
The Golden Triangle area has for long been the world's largest supplier of heroin and the emergence of the methamphetamine trade in recent years it is said has diverted profits from traditional players who are unhappy with the development.
Whether this is true or not can only be known after some serious effort by Thai authorities to clamp down on not just the smuggling of methamphetamine but also heroin from the Burma border and put an end to the production and distribution of the drugs within the country.
With various vested interests benefitting from the multi-billion dollar trade a serious effort against the drug business may have to go to the very heart of the Thai establishment.
August 30, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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