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THAILAND: OPIUM’S HISTORY EXPLORED

By Alfa, Feb 7, 2004 | |
  1. Alfa
    OPIUM'S HISTORY EXPLORED

    The Hall Of Opium Traces The History, Trade And Cultivation Of The
    Addictive Poppy

    CHIANG RAI, THAILAND - It remains almost as secret as the underground
    drug trade itself: a government-backed museum about the hazards of
    addiction located in the heart of southeast Asia's formerly notorious
    Golden Triangle.

    Even local cab drivers are still dropping hapless travellers at the
    wrong address, mistakenly depositing them at a nondescript mini-museum
    nearby.

    The $12-million museum opened in 2002, but is likely to remain
    low-profile until its official opening before mid-year, probably by a
    member of Thailand's revered royal family.

    Promotion, due to start this year, will aim to lure large numbers of
    tourists. The new facility's none-too-surprising message: Opium and
    heroin (derived from opium) are bad.

    Eyebrows were raised when it was announced the museum would be built
    in the heart of an area long associated with illicit narcotics.

    But, these days, marketing gurus are responsible for numerous signs
    saying "Welcome to the Golden Triangle." The name is used by resorts,
    tour companies and other businesses. The Golden Triangle's public face
    is squeaky clean.

    Hall of Opium

    The gleaming Hall of Opium should not be confused with the tacky,
    15-year-old House of Opium, three minutes' drive away in the tourist
    town of Sop Ruak. This private museum, a dim and dusty series of
    displays of drug paraphernalia and other exhibits, sits amid tawdry
    souvenir shops.

    This town, an hour north up a smooth highway from the modern city of
    Chiang Rai, is where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet at the edges of the
    Mekong River to form the heart of the Golden Triangle.

    Visitors leave Thailand on three-minute boat rides to the islet of Don
    Sao in the middle of the Mekong River-where, for less than $0.70 (no
    passports required), Lao officials issue tickets permitting
    exploration of a Lao village's souvenir shops and the sending of
    postcards home with the stamps of communist Laos.

    Similar visa-free forays into Burma-though passports must be shown-can
    be made to the Paradise Casino five minutes away or from the Thai town
    of Mae Sai to Tachilek, a market town.

    The nearby hinterland of all three countries (plus nearby parts of
    China) is opium territory. Most poppies grow in Burma.

    Thailand has had great success in weaning hill tribes from opium
    production. The Golden Triangle is no longer the main source of opium
    that's turned into heroin for Western markets. Afghanistan now has
    that dubious honor, according to United Nations assessments.

    Drug use

    Against this backdrop the Hall of Opium was built. Its origin is in
    campaigns led by the late Princess Mother (mother of Thai King
    Bhumibol Adulyadej) to educate hill tribes, promote alternative
    occupations and raise awareness of the unpleasant consequences of drug
    use.

    She started the Mae Fah Luang Foundation (mae fah luang is Thai for
    Princess Mother) in the 1980s to help impoverished ethnic minorities.
    One year before her death in 1995, the foundation hired a U.S.
    academic, Charles Mehl, to gather data for a museum project.

    It was to be a six-month contract but nine years later, he was still
    toiling. "We want to educate people about drugs-what they can do to
    you and to society," said Mehl.

    The museum itself took four years to complete with considerable
    Japanese funding. The Mae Fah Luang Foundation runs it, with support
    from the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

    The objective is for the three-level museum to become a major tourist
    attraction for foreign and Thai visitors as well as an educational
    tool for schools.

    Externally, the building resembles an architecturally stylish
    concrete-and-glass corporate headquarters. However, it extends through
    a hill with parts emerging on each side. Plans call for opium poppies
    to be grown, as an outdoor exhibit, down a slope opposite the main
    entrance.

    Visitors walk along an eerily dark 127 metre subterranean tunnel-with
    bas reliefs of addicts' writhing spirits barely visible on the walls
    and tiny blue lights edging the tiled path-before emerging into the
    first exhibition hall.

    Here a greenhouse of opium poppies sits alongside photos and text with
    information about the best-known of more than 200 members of the
    Papaveraceae (poppy) family-including Papaver somniferum, the opium
    poppy. Displays are devoted to the biology of the opium poppy. Others
    illustrate the lifestyle of the Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Yao
    tribes, which to greater or lesser degrees have been involved in poppy
    production.

    A second hall describes the history of opium: Dioramas and
    English-language narration explain 5,000 years of opium history from
    ancient Egypt to Europe in the Middle Ages (including its use in early
    medicines) and on to Asia. Alongside a replica of an East India
    Company clipper, European colonial expansion into Asia is described
    with emphasis on the 19th-century Opium Wars against China.

    The subject is related to Britain, France and others in selling opium,
    mostly from India and Turkey, in China to finance the expansion of
    trading operations-again with potent dioramas. The conclusion
    presented is that Britain benefited from the opium trade while China
    lost. Further, China's humiliation fuelled subsequent support for Mao
    Zedong and communism.

    So, the scene is set: The following section concentrates on "Opium in
    Siam," as Thailand was then called-with exhibited drug paraphernalia:
    pipes, pillows and ornate boxes. The process of preparing opium from
    the harvesting of poppy sap to the point where it reaches consumers is
    detailed.

    A full-size opium den in Bangkok's Chinatown is recreated, complete
    with plaster-case renditions of hapless wretches slumped after smoking
    the drug. The conversion to heroin is also described, accompanied by a
    vivid diorama of jailed addicts.

    Hall of Excuses

    In the Hall of Excuses/Victims, videos show interviews with a Thai
    addict and the grief-stricken family of a foreign addict. Short films
    describe the involvement of U.S.'s organized crime in marketing heroin
    and the Central Intelligence Agency in propping up right-wing regimes
    profiting not only from heroin trafficking but also, in South America,
    from cocaine.

    A gallery includes pictures of celebrities, Western and Asian, who
    have succumbed to drugs: Tallulah Bankhead, John Belushi, Kurt Cobain,
    Billie Holiday, Bela Lugosi and others (but no Jimi Hendrix or Janis
    Joplin).

    Finally, the Hall of Reflection is reached-a quiet room intended to be
    inspirational. Quotations of religious and secular origin are inscribed on
    various surfaces, including this from Mahatma Gandhi: "Remember that there
    is always a limit to self-indulgence but none to self-restraint."

    Thai tourism officials say the museum's powerful message will draw
    attention to the country's unrelenting war on drugs (more than 1,000
    foreigners are in Thai jails for drug offences).

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