Holes in Thailand's drug fences

By buseman · Jul 13, 2010 ·
  1. buseman
    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 effectively.

    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 narcotics.

    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 Myanmar army.

    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
    13 July 2010

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