FANG, Thailand — It was about 7 pm when the sun set and darkness descended on northern Thailand. A group of teenagers, aged 13 to 17, approached our car as we stopped at a market of an ethnic hill tribe village on the road to Fang District in Chiang Mai Province.
Rolling down the car window, the teenagers asked without hesitation: “Brother, do you want some? How many?” They chattered on without pause.
“What do you have?” I asked.
One took out a small pack of methamphetamine pills, known locally as yaba.
Feigning interest in buying the pills, we asked: “How much?” One quickly answered: “150 baht per pill.”
Trying to extract ourselves from the situation, we said we had only stopped the car for a break. Then, we quickly started the car and drove on.
Traveling many times through several border towns in northern Thailand, such as Chiang Dao, Chiang Rai, Fang, Doi Ahkang, Mae Ai, Mae Swe, and Mae Surin in Mae Hong Son Province, I have learned from local communities that drug trafficking is an open secret–and a lucrative trade–in the region.
In conversations with several sources from narcotics circles, including drug dealers, addicts and former drug convicts, all said the drug business here is hardly hush-hush, and despite drug eradication efforts, there is no end in sight for the illegal trade.
Thai drug addict Aie Chai (not his real name), who lives in Fang, said he makes good money selling yaba, which he also consumes himself in order to work harder on his farm.
Fully etched with tattoos on his hands and legs, Aie Chai claimed the drug is a performance enhancer when it comes to manual labor.
“Many farmers here also use yaba to work harder. But some buyers are teenagers. People here know who is selling yaba and where to get it. But they don’t talk about it, as it’s normal practice to them.”
Many dealers are arrested, some of them repeatedly. Several small-time sellers are also repeatedly jailed, then released.
Aie Chai said he also was once arrested and temporarily detained. A bribe paid to police by his mother and sister was his extrajudicial ticket to freedom.
His neighbor, Channat, who also requested that her real name not be used, agreed with Aie Chai. Pointing to several houses near her home, she said the owners of those neighboring residences also sold yaba.
“Many of them get rich, own property and businesses because they sell yaba,” Channat said. “My aunt also got rich because of this [the drug trade]. Her husband is a big dealer. He is always in secret places as he is being hunted by police.”
For Channat, it is something of a family trade.
“My uncle is a big dealer,” she continued. “He met with Khun Sa [a Burmese warlord who died in 2007] in Burma. Now, he can’t stop doing this business. If he stops, he will be killed by his associates because he knows the drug network well.”
Khun Sa was also known as the “Opium King” due to his opium trade empire in the Golden Triangle, a trading point where the borders of Burma, Thailand and Laos meet. The area is one of Asia’s two main opium-producing regions.
Golden Triangle, Golden Land
A dealer, Suyout (not real name) said methamphetamine pills came from neighboring Burma. Drugs are secretly trafficked through the jungle into border territories and towns such as Mae Ai, Doi Ahkang, Mae Swe and Fang, which border eastern Shan State.
The drug influx enters from Burma through Thailand’s northern territories before making its way down to Chiang Mai, Bangkok and southern Thailand. From southern Thailand, the drugs are trafficked to neighboring Southeast Asian nations, mainly Malaysia.
The director of the Narcotics Law Enforcement Bureau in Bangkok, who asked to be identified only as Siripong, said Thai border towns such as Mae Ai, Fang, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Fah Luang are the main routes used by drug traffickers. Some narcotics, however, are smuggled through Mae Hong Son Province’s border towns, she added.
From Chiang Mai, the drugs are transported by vehicles to central Thailand, Bangkok and the country’s deep south. From there, some drugs are also trafficked into Malaysia by cross-border vehicles, according to Siripong.
Many drugs, primarily methamphetamine pills, will come to rest in Thailand.
“Yaba [methamphetamine pills] mostly sell out in Thailand. But for ice [crystal methamphetamine] and heroin, sometimes they go down south, to Malaysia and other third countries,” Siripong said.
She said some drugs are also trafficked into Laos via towns within the Golden Triangle. The drugs are then transported from Laos along the Mekong River to the border towns of Thailand’s northeastern provinces.
In August 2011, Thailand’s Office of the Narcotics Control Board (OCNB) hosted a bilateral meeting on narcotics law enforcement cooperation in Pattaya, attended by both Thai and Burmese delegations. The two parties exchanged information on targeted drug traffickers and discussed enhanced mutual cooperation on transborder narcotics law enforcement.
“We have very close cooperation [with Burma’s government],” Siripong said. “And we share the information. We join hands to press them [drug traffickers]. We can’t say that we will succeed very soon. It may take time.”
She said Thailand is used as a transit country by drug traffickers from Burma, Laos, Malaysia and the Golden Crescent—Asia’s other major opium-producing region.
The Thai official said methamphetamine pills also come from Iran. Heroin also comes from the Golden Crescent, such as the border territories of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, via air.
Siripong said armed ethnic Wa and Kokang groups from Burma’s Shan State were the region’s main drug producers, operating heroin refineries and methamphetamine laboratories.
Veteran Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner, who wrote “Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948,” said the reason for the illicit drug trade’s stubborn endurance was the prevalence of these yaba and heroin labs, run by independent operators who pay the United Wa State Army (UWSA) a protection fee to be allowed to set up labs inside the UWSA-controlled territory. There are labs owned and run by UWSA leaders as well.
Lintner, who has covered Burma for more than 20 years, wrote in another book, “Blood Brothers,” of an excursion into the heart of UWSA territory in 1999. A group of foreign journalists were taken first to Mong La, site of a Kokang rebel base, and then to UWSA headquarters at Panghsang, where they were introduced to the late Kokang leader, commander Lin Mingxian, and Wa leader Pao Yuqiang.
The aim was to show the foreigners that great headway had been made in the war on drugs. At that time, Lin and Pao denied any involvement in the drug trade.
“It was perhaps hardly surprising that the drug traffickers themselves denied that they were running heroin refineries, methamphetamine laboratories and regional smuggling networks,” wrote Lintner.
With the cooperation of the Burmese and Laotian governments, the Thai government put drug eradication on the national agenda. During the era of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government, the premier launched a war on drugs in 2003, killing about 3,000 people allegedly involved in the drug trade in some capacity. But the campaign was unable to fully eliminate the narcotics scourge.
As to the transnational nature of the effort, Lintner has his doubts.
“I don’t think there’s much actual cooperation between those countries [Burma, Thailand and Laos], just a lot of talk because they really don’t trust each other. They have meetings and seminars, but little or no cooperation on the ground.”
On April 20 of last year, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung announced that the ONCB was offering a 2 million baht reward for the capture of any of the country’s 25 most-wanted drug kingpins.
Afterward, one of the most-wanted ethnic Shan drug dealers, Naw Kham, a notorious leader of a private militia on the Mekong River, was arrested, charged and executed by China.
Naw Kham for five years had terrorized the crews of vessels on the Mekong River—almost invariably Chinese cargo ships – sailing a narrow stretch of the river between Laos and Burma.
An Ages-old Trade
Most observers and analysts say it is impossible to completely eliminate drug trafficking, an ages-old trade.
And civilians are hardly the only concern. Law enforcers such as police and border rangers, and ethnic militias, are also involved in illicit drug dealings.
A Thai drug dealer in the town of Chai Prakan, Fang District, described the nature of the drug trade as a business with no end.
“If you get involved into [taking a] big step, you can’t stop it because the more you get rich from the drugs, the bigger drug connections you get,” he said.
“And it is highly risky for you to stop the trade when big drug gangs know you. Even if you want to stop, they won’t let you go because you know all their trade connections. They will hunt you until they kill you,” he added.
A former Shan rebel who was with Shan State Army-South (SSA-South), an ethnic Shan militia that has strongholds along the Shan State-Thailand border, said that when he patrolled in Shan State on duty with his colleagues, his militia often clashed with armed drug trafficking gangs in the jungle who were transporting methamphetamine pills from Shan State into Thailand’s northern border towns.
He said armed drug gangs killed anyone they encountered on the trafficking route to eliminate the risk that the route and network might be compromised.
“No matter villagers, farmers, men, women or children—they kill all,” the former Shan rebel added.
Thierry Falise, a Bangkok-based veteran Belgian photojournalist who has covered Burma for more than 20 years and gained access in some opium plantations in Wa territory, said the Wa have been producing opium for generations. The Wa territory in colonial times was mostly a no man’s land overrun by head-hunters, which neither China nor Britain wished to administer.
“It’s more than probable that the UWSA has its own drug factories. A yaba factory is just a wooden or a bamboo hut easy to conceal in the jungle. A heroin factory is built along a stream or a river but it’s also limited infrastructure, easy to hide,” Falise said.
In 2003, during a trek in Shan State with SSA-S soldiers, Falise said his team encountered a group of Chinese workers who were busy building a heroin refinery along a dirt road controlled by the Burmese authorities.
“It was only a bamboo hut and a couple of holes dug on a riverbank to accommodate the different stages of refinement,” Falise recalled.
After talking with reliable sources from UWSA and SSA-South during a lengthy journey in 1993 in Wa territory, Falise said he learned that there were some heroin labs in the area where he was staying.
“I asked to visit one of them and there was actually a debate among the top leadership, but after a while they came back to me and told me that there was no such facility. I realized that I had never been so close to a heroin lab,” Falise said.
Since the mid-1990s, the majority of narcotics production in Burma has been yaba, a drug mainly destined for regional markets. The West was a major market during the heroin production boom prior to the mid-1990s.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced last week that organized crime in the Asia-Pacific region, which includes human trafficking, migrant smuggling, and the illicit drug and wildlife trades, is a $90 billion a year business—twice the GDP of Burma.
The report said drug trafficking accounts for an estimated one-third of the value of transnational organized crime. It found that an estimated 65 metric tons of heroin worth $16.3 billion flowed within the region in 2011, of which two-thirds was produced in Shan State, where Wa, Shan rebels and other pro-government militias are based.
An additional $15 billion worth of methamphetamine within the region is also manufactured in eastern and northeastern Burma, although the report said there are notable amounts entering from West Africa and the Middle East as well.
Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in the report, “These transnational criminal activities are a global concern now.”
Several huge drug seizures were reported in 2012 in Thailand. In January last year, Thai police seized 3.8 million methamphetamine tablets worth over 1 billion baht ($34 million) in Bangkok, the largest drug bust in years. The pills and 71 kg of crystal methamphetamine were found hidden in a house on the northern outskirts of Bangkok.
Veteran Shan journalist Khunsai Jaiyen, editor of the Thailand-based Shan Herald Agency for News, reports regularly on drugs in the region. He said there have been no major improvements in anti-trafficking in Shan State even though the Shan rebel and Burmese government vowed to work on drug eradication after they reached a ceasefire agreement six months ago.
Jaiyen linked the drug trade to political affairs in Burma. Because of the Burmese government’s failure to reach political settlements with armed ethnic groups, the minority groups are forced to recruit militia members and fund their operations, he explained. The need for an army and arms leaves the ethnic groups few options but to get involved in border trading, including the illicit but profitable drug business.
Jaiyen blamed all armed groups, including ethnic militias and government troops, for the thriving drug trade. He expressed optimism, however, that political settlements between the government and ethnic rebels could bring the problem to an end.
“It is necessary to reach political settlement,” Jaiyen said.
Photojournalist Falise said that the entirety of Thailand’s border with Burma has been used for decades by drug traffickers, with heavier activity in the north.
“There are thousands of trails, tracks and roads in the forest and hills marking the border, it’s impossible to control them all,” Falise said.
Douglas of the UNODC spoke to the broader implications of the region’s drug trade, reaching far beyond addicts Fang District.
“Illicit profits from crimes in East Asia and the Pacific can destabilize societies around the globe,” he said. “Dollars from illicit activities in East Asia can buy property and companies and corrupt anywhere.
“We need to talk about this, and organize a coordinated response now,” Douglas added. “It takes a network to defeat a network.”