Myanmar Drug Trade Surges Along Thai Border
DOI CHANG MOOB, THAILAND — For more than half a century heroin has been carried over the jungle-shrouded hills here, the first leg of a journey that delivers the drugs to cities as far off as Sydney and Vancouver, Canada. But anti-narcotics officials are rubbing their eyes at the spectacle they are now witnessing: a flood of heroin and methamphetamines is spilling across from Myanmar as traffickers slash their inventories in a panicked sell-off.
“It’s a clearance sale,” said Pornthep Eamprapai, director of the northern branch of the Thai Office of Narcotics Control, who has nearly three decades of experience tracking illicit drugs from Myanmar. “Some dealers at the border are buying on credit. They don’t even need to pay in cash. This is the first time I’ve seen this.”
Heroin seizures by the police in northern Thailand have increased more than 2,100 percent from last year: in the 10 months to August, the authorities seized 1,268 kilograms, or 2,795 pounds, of heroin, up from 57 kilograms a year earlier, according to the Office of Narcotics Control.
The main reason for the rise in trafficking, officials say, is the deteriorating political situation in the northernmost regions of Myanmar. Ahead of the introduction of a new constitution next year, Myanmar’s military government is cracking down on armed ethnic groups arrayed along the borders with Thailand, Laos and China. The ethnic groups, many of which have a long history of producing a range of illicit drugs, are steeling themselves for battle with the Myanmar junta and rushing to convert their stocks of heroin and methamphetamines into cash to buy weapons.
“Various traffickers are liquidating their stockpiles,” said Pamela Brown, an agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. “They are trying to get large shipments of heroin out, and some have been successful.”
The ethnic groups are obscure to most outsiders — the Wa, Kachin and Shan, among them — but the fate of these groups is crucial to the future of the world’s heroin supply, experts say.
In the rugged northern hills of Myanmar, manufacturing drugs is sometimes the only reliable way to generate cash.
The standoff in northern Myanmar between ethnic groups and the central government is an anomaly in modern Asia, a throwback to much more unstable times. The Wa and Kachin have large, well-equipped armies and administrations akin to the small kingdoms that existed in Asia before European colonial powers introduced the concept of the nation state.
Now, in a desperate bid to protect their fiefdoms, the ethnic groups are casting a wide net for more weapons, according to Col. Peeranate Katetem, the deputy commander of a Thai special anti-narcotic unit based in the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai. Three months ago, he received a call from a Wa representative who said he was looking to spend about $25 million to purchase M-16 assault rifles and “anything capable of exploding.” Colonel Peeranate said the group appeared eager to barter heroin for the weapons. He said he declined to help.
The Myanmar junta and its proxies beat back ethnic Karen rebels in June and attacked and defeated an ethnic-Chinese group, the Kokang, in August. This has left the leadership of other ethnic groups wondering if they are next.
The Golden Triangle, as this region is known, was once the world’s pre-eminent source of heroin. In recent years, it has produced around 5 percent of the world’s supply of the drug, eclipsed by Afghanistan, which now produces the lion’s share.
That could change, experts warn, if Myanmar’s dormant civil war re-ignites.
“The drug trade would flourish,” said Ko-Lin Chin, a criminologist at Rutgers University and author of a book on the Golden Triangle published this year. Mr. Chin believes the planting of opium poppies, now suppressed in many areas, could resume on a wider scale. “They would flood the world with opium.”
By THOMAS FULLER
Published: September 30, 2009