COMBATING DRUGS IN THAILAND

COMBATING DRUGS IN THAILAND

To combat the drug problem in Thailand, the Thai government instituted both public information campaigns and drug treatment centers. The national media began to make daily announcements about the social effects of drug use, and even in small provincial cities billboards were used to carry the message. Some traditional social systems were also employed in an innovative fashion. For example, Wat Tam Krabok, in Sara Buri Province, became one of the most important centers for the treatment of opiate addiction. Moreover, the government responded to the increase in health-related problems by placing new emphasis on meeting basic social needs in its economic and social development planning. [Source: Library of Congress]

The Thai government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the effort to combat drugs. Projects have included the reforestation of hundreds of square kilometers of land, developing jobs for local people, setting up cottage industries, developing tourism, and providing detox for addicts.

Many public relations and advertising campaigns have been borrowed from the US, translated into Thai with little or no attempt to adjust them to the Thai context, and then launched with high-budget media blitzes. On World Anti-Drugs Day in 2008, about 4,300 kilograms of narcotics, mainly heroin, opium and amphetamines were destroyed before television cameras by Thailand’s ministry of public health.

One U.S. drug agent who was planing to ambush a major drug kingpin in the 1970s told National Geographic, "the government says it will execute him if he is captured but I doubt it. They're Buddhist, you know."

Combating Opium Production in Thailand

Opium production declined dramatically in Thailand between the 1980s and the mid 1990s. The strategy against opium and heroin production at that time was to isolate and push the trade out of Thailand. Describing the typical search and destroy tactics employed by Thai authorities, Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand:“Each year, soldiers with M-16, alerted by satellite imagery, swoop down in helicopters in opium fields. With their weapons slung over their shoulders, they wade through waist high opium fields swinging bamboo sticks like scythes to cut he poppies down while television cameras and news photograph records the proceeding for the evening news broadcast and morning tabloids. [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand, 1995]

“Thai army rangers sweep North Thailand from Tak to Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son, destroying poppy fields and heroin refineries but rarely making arrests. A typical sweep costs $1 million and accomplishes the destruction of 25,000 or more rai of poppy fields in nine poppy-growing provinces...Hill tribe and Shan cultivators, at the bottom of the profit scale, stand by helplessly while their primary means of livelihood is hacked and burned to the ground. [Ibid]

“A one-sided approach has resulted only in the unthinking destruction of minority culture and economy in the Golden Triangle area rather than an end to the opium and heroin problem. Lingering poverty has made the total eradication of opium production an elusive goal. Farmers can earn about $900 to $1,500 for a 1.6 kilogram “joy” of opium. They tried to hide the poppies from ariel surveillance but planting them in patches like cabbage and hiding them under wild sunflowers.” [Ibid]

Most of the anti-drugs sweeps took place in fields in northern Thailand,. Occasionally security forces crossed over the border and directed their efforts at poppy fields in Myanmar. In some Thai-Burmese border towns the Thai army had provided training and weapons to local people so they can patrol the forests in the battle against traffickers. Myanmar has rejected Thailand’s suggestion to set up a joint border patrol to combat drug smuggling.

The U.S. military has provided some help to Thailand’s anti-drug campaign. U.S. special forces trained a crack Thai anti-drug unit known as task Force 399. The American government has sold the Thais two Black hawk helicopters, the latest night vision equipments and provided them with satellite photos of drug production areas. Between 1965 and 2000, more than $800 million in foreign aid was given to Thailand to combat drugs.

Switching From Opium to Other Crops

At great expense the Thai government encouraged former opium growers to to grow coffee, corn and other crops instead of opium. King Bhumibol has been a major force in yhis effort. He established research stations in northern Thailand to determine which crops would fare the best in the northern highlands; worked out incentives to get growers to switch from opium to other crops; and provided farmers with seeds, saplings and most importantly markets for their new crops.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “ A crop substation program developed by the Thai royal family in 1959 (a year earlier, cultivation of the opium poppy for profit has been made illegal), has had mixed results, Success has only occurred in selected area where crop substitution is accompanied by a concentrated effort to indoctrinate hill tribes into mainstream Thai culture,” [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand, 1995]

Beginning in the 1970s, United-States-funded crop replacement programs were launched that offered villages in opium-growing regions improved water, electricity and schools and access to fertilizer and low-interest loans if they grew cash crops instead of opium. The Thai government built roads that help the villagers get their crops to market. One member of the Karen tribe told AFP, "If you grow opium they will not give you school. They will not give you electricity."

The program had difficulty taking hold at first due to the fact that opium-growing areas were often controlled by insurgency group and opium brought in five times more money than any other crop. To cut down all the opium poppies would instantly turn them into guerrilla insurgents.

Crops introduced to replace opium have included coffee, mushrooms, ginseng, cardamom, beans, macadamia nuts, and mulberry trees for silk, corn, rice, soy beans, lettuce, cabbage, strawberries. Many farmers earned more money growing the new crops. Farmers growing kidney beans, for example, earned one third more than they did with opium. One farmer told Reuter that he used to make about $1,000 a year growing opium and now he makes $1,200 year growing vegetables. Many farmers earned less but were still happy due to the benefits they received. One villager told National Geographic, "We made more money growing opium but our lives are better now."

King Bhumibol’s Effort to Stop Opium Growing Among Thailand's Hill Tribes

The Royal Project is an initiative of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej to help develop highlands in northern Thailand on a sustainable basis. It has gained recognition worldwide for its success in eradicating opium poppies and improving the well-being of the people. The Royal Project involves the growing of a wide variety of cash crops, especially temperate plants, to replace opium cultivation, improve the living conditions of hill tribe people, and eliminate the slash-and-burn technique of clearing land. It began operations in 1969 and has now expanded significantly, with more than 100,000 people benefiting from it.

The program began in the late 1960s, when His Majesty stayed at the royal palace in Chiang Mai Province, and visited and talked to hill tribe villagers living in the mountainous area about their needs. He asked them about their source of income. They said that their income came from growing opium and peaches, with the the income from opium and peaches being about the same. At that time, tribal people living on highlands had become a problem to the government, partly because of their destructive slash-and-burn technique of clearing land, as well as opium production.

In a speech at Chiang Mai University in 1969, His Majesty said that he intended to help hill tribe people grow useful crops that would give higher income than growing opium, so that they would switch from opium cultivation to other crops. The project would also support the government’s policy of banning opium cultivation and trade. He pointed out that the traditional farming method of cutting down and burning the forest conducted by hill tribe villagers would lead to forest destruction and deterioration of soil quality. That was how the Royal Project was launched. His Serene Highness Prince Bhisatej Rajani was assigned by His Majesty to carry out his initiative for the establishment of the project.

Originally, the project was called the Royal-sponsored Hilltribe Project. Later, it was changed to the Royal Hilltribe Development Project and then the Royal Northern Project. Now, it is called the Royal Project. The Royal Project was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding in 1988. In the same year, it also received the Thai Export Award 1988 for its outstanding activities to promote Thai exports of fresh vegetables and fruit and canned fruit. The Royal Project won an award from the Drug Advisory Program of the Colombo Plan in Sri Lanka in December 2003 on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Drug Advisory Program.

King Bhumibol founded the Royal Project in part to make ethnic minorities in northern Thailand part of Thai society. In the 1960s he ventured often to northern Thailand, where he established a special relationship with the Hmong, Akha, Lahu and other hill tribes. He often used the medium of pigs to communicate with the Hmong. Pigs are the centerpiece of many Hmong ceremonies. In addition to helping farmers find replacements for opium, the King has helped hill tribes to build irrigation dams, increase crop yields and cover denuded hills to prevet soil erosion.

The Thai king told an interviewer that once a man came to him to complain that his wife had left him for another man after he paid two pigs and some money for her. After deliberating with the two parties involved the king reached into his wallet and paid the man compensation, something which made both parties happy. "The only trouble was I gave the money. So the woman belonged to me," the king said. He solved this problem by "bestowing" the woman to his cousin Prince Bhisatej Rajani, an important advisor for the king in the northern highlands.

From it humble start, the Royal Project has expanded significantly. Royal Project farmers now grow more than 300 crops, thanks to their training in the methods of growing new crops. The Royal Project helps them collect, distribute, and sell highland produce, while improving their quality of life through education, health care, and environmental preservation.

The dowager queen, Princess Sri Nakarindra Borom, who died in July 1995, is revered by hill tribes for the work she did to improve their lives.

Methamphetamine Production and Trafficking

Myanmar is the largest producer of methamphetamines in the world, with the majority of ya ba found in Thailand produced in Myanmar, particularly in the Golden Triangle and Northeastern Shan State, which borders Thailand, Laos and China. Ethnic militias and rebel groups (in particular the United Wa State Army) are responsible for much of this production; however, the Burmese military units are believed to be heavily involved in the trafficking of the drugs. [Source: Wikipedia]

Methamphetamines are produced in the Golden Triangle areas of Myanmar and to a lesser extent Laos and Thailand. The jungles around the border town are Tachilek, Myanmar and Mae Sai, Thailand have traditionally been places where amphetamines producers set up mobile labs that churned out methamphetamine pills for 10 cents a piece and these in turn were sold to supplies who sell them for around 50 cents a piece

By some estimates 50 or so drug laboratories in Myanmar are churning out 1 billion amphetamines tablets a year, the majority of which are smuggle into Thailand. Some are later snuggled to other parts of Asia, Europe and the United States but a lot of it is consumed in Thailand.

Most of the methamphetamine labs are in territory controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which is allied with Myanmar ruling junta. The UWSA is one of the largest and best-armed drug-dealing organizations in the world.

Iranians and Combating the Methamphetamines Trade by Squeezing the Sale of Ephidrine

Richard S. Ehrlich wrote in the Asia Sentinel, “To strangle the supply of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, Thailand in April announced a ban on the public sale of medicine containing the inexpensive chemicals -- but the ban created a problem for hospitals and pharmacies trying to treat patients. The Public Health Ministry ordered all drug stores and clinics to surrender medicines containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine to health authorities by Thursday (May 3), and said about 6 million such tablets had already been turned in during April. Future purchases of such remedies, including liquids such as expectorants, will need clearance from the Narcotics Control Division, it said. [Source: Richard S. Ehrlich, Asia Sentinel, May 4, 2012]

Traffickers from Iran and elsewhere are meanwhile muscling in on the gangs by importing speed pills into Thailand and offering them for much cheaper prices, police said. "There are very real fears the cheap drugs from Iranian gangs will be sold to customers in the lower end of the market," Narong Rattananukul, deputy secretary-general of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board, said on April 15. Several Iranian men and women have been busted during the past several months while arriving at Bangkok's international airport, allegedly bringing in large supplies of methamphetamines and similar drugs.

Methamphetamine Smuggling in Southern Thailand

In 2004, Masaaki Sanada wrote in The Asahi Shimbun, “A government crackdown may have dealt a blow to opium poppy production in the Golden Triangle, but another base for drugs is popping up in southern Thailand. In the southern Thai town of Ranong, only an hour's ride by motorboat from Myanmar, Thai merchants and Burmese laborers crowd the waterfront. At this point of contact, locals can cross borders with a simple certificate. Conflicts between authorities and Muslim residents are ongoing in this region, which is caught up in the shattering grip of Islamic radicals. These radicals are suspected of involvement in drug smuggling, and the Thai police and government are stepping up efforts to intervene. The major drug being confiscated is yaba, a powerful addictive stimulant made from methamphetamine and caffeine. [Source: Masaaki Sanada, The Asahi Shimbun, December 25, 2004]

``The production base (for this drug) is moving to Andaman in southern Thailand because drug control efforts have been stepped up in northern Myanmar,'' says Thai Army Col. Kiti Inthasorn. Between October 2003 and August 2004, 13 Thais and 11 Burmese were arrested in connection with drug trafficking in the southern border region. Some 1,400 tabs of LSD and 600 grams of marijuana, among other drugs, were confiscated.

In October 2008, South Korean police arrested 111 Thai migrant workers for trafficking and consumption of methamphetamines and yaba, Three of the workers were arretsed on trafficking chrages. The rest were charged with consuming them.

Anti-Drug Violence

After taking office in February 2001, Prime Minister Shinawatra Thaksin said doing something about Thailand’s drug problem, particularly amphetamines, was a top priority. In an anti-drug crackdown that began in early 2003 about 2,300 people were killed. The Thai public overwhelmingly supported the crackdown. Newspapers ran grizzly pictures of the dead and reported the deaths of the drug dealers as if they were points for the home team.

Although the tough tactics were supported by many ordinary Thais they were condemned by human rights groups, who accused the Thailand government of carrying out an extra-judicial killing campaign. Thai officials responded by saying that most of the drugs dealers were gunned down by other criminals. Those that were killed by police, the officials insisted, were shot in self defense. Most of the deaths, they said, were attributed to intergang warfare carried out to eliminate rivals and informers. Critics of the campaign were accused of betrayal and siding with the drug dealers. Few journalists dared to investigate the deaths.

Before the crackdown, Thailand ran anti-drug slogans, hired pop stars to denounce drug use and launched an education campaign in schools with little positive results. Thaksin’s campaign set quotas for drug seizures, rewarding those who seized lots of pills and punishing those who fell short. Results had precedent over the rule of law. If some suspected drug dealers were killed in the process so much the better. Thaksin said, “They will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace, Who cares? They are destroying our country.”

Million of drugs were seized. tens of thousands were arrested. By one count 285,186 drug users were reported to authorities. The overall impact of the campaign was a matter of debate. Many big dealers and those with political connections escaped unscathed and despite claims by the government that amphetamines use dropped by 90 percent and 70,000 people turned themselves in, amphetamines use remained high and continued to be a problem.

Killing During Anti-Drug Violence

Much of the dirty work during Thaksin’s anti-drug campaign was done by heavily-armed militias and vigilante groups recruited by the police and the government. Many victims were on secret but official “black lists” with 46,000 names. Some were killed by masked men after visiting police stations. Little effort was made track down the killers.

The black lists were drawn up quickly. There was pressure on police and the militias to act quickly. The police were told that if they acted slowly they would be punished. Some of alleged drug dealers were believed to be victims of score settling. Others got their name taken off the blacklist by paying a bribe. Others who surrendered to police and were let go were shot as they returned home.

Many bodies were disposed of without autopsies. Some had been shot execution style and had bags of drugs placed conspicuously at their sides. A typical killing involved the shooting of a man in a pick truck. It wasn’t uncommon for police or produce three bullet-riddled bodies and provide little information about who they were or what they had done. Supporting the police were newspaper reports like: 1) “Police believe they could have been murdered by another dealer;” 2) “Police believed the man was killed by professional hit men hired by drug dealers;” and 3) “Police think the killing might have resulted from a turf war involving the region’s drug gangs.” As names were ticked off the blacklist, police confiscated gold, gems, cash, 40 deer, 320 ostriches and 10,000 crocodiles in raids.

There reportedly was a “shoot to kill” order. A police general told the Nation that the campaign was a “shortcut to hell” for those who were killed. “I support the idea of setting up killer teams to terminate these people,” he aid, “provided that there is a law to support the actions against such people.”

Clearly, some innocent people were killed. In one case, a nine-year-old boy, the son of a suspected drug dealer, was caught in the cross fire of a police raid and killed. The boy was sitting in the back of a car while his father allegedly delivered 6,000 pills as informant police were watching. The boy was killed when the police opened fire on the vehicle when the boy’s mother drove away in the car. In another raid a one-year-old baby was killed.

The war on drugs was restarted in April 2008.

U.S. Drug Lord Arrested in Thailand

In September 2013, Papitchaya Boonngok of Associated Press wrote: “An American described as a "leading drug lord" with a network spanning Asia and the United States was sent back to the U.S. on a government-chartered plane following his arrest in Thailand, authorities said. Agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency were sent on the flight to escort Joseph Manuel Hunter, 48, and five other suspects arrested during a sting operation on the resort island of Phuket, said Thai deputy police chief Somyot Pumpanmuang. The flight was bound for New York where an arrest warrant has been issued for the six men, he said. [Source: Papitchaya Boonngok, Associated Press, September 26, 2013 +++]

“Hunter and his suspected accomplices — identified as two Brits, a Slovak, a Filipino and a Taiwanese — were arrested during a sting operation launched at the request of the DEA following a lengthy investigation into the suspected drug gang, police said. "He is a leading drug lord" wanted for drug smuggling, trafficking and other international crimes, Somyot said. "This group was considered to be a big network that spanned many countries," including Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Philippines, Somyot said. +++

According to Thai police, Hunter served in the U.S. Navy, and his alleged accomplices were also believed to have had military training. "All these people were trained to kill," Somyot told reporters at a police airport in Bangkok after the handcuffed suspects were flown in from Phuket. He said the DEA contacted Thai authorities several months ago to say that Hunter was believed to be hiding in Phuket, where he had rented a house. Hunter regularly traveled around the region and last entered Thailand from the Philippines on Sept. 6, Somyot said. U.S. Embassy spokesman Walter Braunohler in Bangkok said he could not immediately comment on the case and referred questions to Washington. +++

Thailand Extradites Five Over North Korean Meth

In November 2013, AFP reported: “The United States announced charges against five suspects extradited from Thailand for allegedly smuggling methamphetamines from North Korea, which prosecutors said has become a growing production hub. Federal prosecutors said Thai authorities arrested the five in September and sent them to New York on Tuesday over an ill-fated bid to send 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of North Korean-produced meth by boat to the United States. The suspects included two British citizens, one Chinese, one Filipino and one purported leader of a Thai motorcycle gang whose nationality was not specified. They face life in prison if convicted. [Source: AFP, November 21, 2013]

US authorities said that cash-strapped North Korea, which is under stringent international sanctions over its nuclear and other military programs, had emerged as a center for production of the stimulant. "This investigation continued to highlight the emergence of North Korea as a significant source of methamphetamine in the global drug trade," Michele Leonhart, head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, said in a statement.

Prosecutors said that the group, who used a base in the Philippines, bought 100 kilograms and planned to package it in tea leaves and send it on a ship to the United States. An armed motorcycle gang tried to guard the shipment but Thai authorities broke up the shipment and arrested the five on September 25, according to US prosecutors for the southern district of New York.

Thai Police Seize Record 4.49 Million Meth Tablets

In May 2013, Associated Press reported: “Thai police have seized 4.49 million methamphetamine pills found in an apartment in the largest meth bust ever in Bangkok. Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung said Tuesday the tablets and 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of crystal meth were smuggled from Myanmar. He said they were destined for sales in the capital city and nearby provinces. The value of the drugs, hidden in dozens of pieces of luggage, was estimated at 1.5 billion baht ($50 million). Police said they arrested three suspects, including a 16-year-old boy, and confiscated four pistols from them. One of the suspects said they were hired to look after the drugs. [Source: Associated Press, May 21 2013]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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