Drug Smuggling Increase at Thai-Burmese Border

From their Chiang Rai base, Thai soldiers can see two Burmese army outposts and another two United Wa State Army camps. Despite the proximity to the two rival armies, the pace of life at the jungle base is slow.

This unit has not engaged in fighting for decades. However, the Thai soldiers say their position is vital, not only for Thai sovereignty but to combat the increasing flow of drugs being smuggled into Thailand.

Every two or three months the Thai and Wa soldiers meet at a location halfway between their two bases. Despite their dedication to combating the drug trade, the soldiers say they refrain from talking about "politics or serious issues" with the Wa.

But it is well known among Thai border guards that the Wa have their hands in the drug trade. Also, the US government labeled the Wa Army a narcotic trafficking organization seven years ago, charging it was the largest drug-producing entity in Southeast Asia. In addition to the usual Golden Triangle exports of opium and heroin, the Wa are said to have diversified particularly into methamphetamines, known in Thailand as yaa baa.

Only two days before this reporter visited, the Thais had caught three people no more than 4 km from the base, smuggling large quantities of methamphetamines. When the Thais attempted to arrest the traffickers a gunfight broke out, killing one of the smugglers.

Despite increased efforts by the Thai military to reduce trafficking, the level of drugs entering Thailand has soared over the last six months.

Sitting in a safe house on the Thai-Burmese border in Chiang Rai province, Ko Sai, an ethnic Wa spy for the Thai military, told The Irrawaddy he believed the level of drugs entering into Thailand has increased more than sixfold from last year.

"Drugs have just started to flood in to Northern Thailand from Burma, I have never seen so much," said Ko Sai, using a fake name for reasons of security. When Ko Sai was only 15 years old, the Wa army came to his village and demanded he join their forces. Despite his objections, he was dragged off and conscripted to an outpost. He stayed there till he was 18 and then deserted to Thailand. Statistics reflect the increase in drug smuggling.

Thailand’s northern branch of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board, which spearheads all anti-drug operations, reports that 10.8 million amphetamine tablets were seized this year. That is a massive increase from last year when only 2.9 million were seized. However, heroin seizures have decreased from 13 kg last year to about 4 kg this year. Over the last year, Ko Sai says, his former comrades in the United Wa State Army have faced repeated calls from the Burmese military government to accede to a proposal that would transform ethnic armies into a so-called Border Guard Force, effectively putting an end to the autonomy that many of the cease-fire groups enjoy, and bring them all under one command in time for the Nov. 7 general election.

The most contested element of the proposal was a demand by the junta in the Burmese capital of Naypyidaw that Burmese commanders take up senior positions in the ethnic army's ranks and hand over the Wa-controlled area at the Thai-Burma border, where more than 80,000 Wa had been strategically relocated by the junta to counter the late Shan drug lord Khun Sa’s armed group in the early 1990s.

Fearing an offensive by the Burmese government forces, the Wa and other ethnic groups in the area have been on high alert since March, when Border Guard Force talks became more heated. As a result of the tensions, the Wa army leaders told all the administrative and military units to prepare for the possibility of an end to the cease-fire.

Part of this preparation has been to stockpile weapons. Following months of surveillance inside the Wa area, Ko Sai said that the Wa are trying to sell drugs quickly in order to raise capital.

"It is not the top Wa leaders directly, but through their cronies and family members they are able to raise more money to buy more arms," he said, adding that he had witnessed a shift to buyers buying on credit.

Along the main roads and smuggling routes, he said the Wa army had set up a series of checkpoints. At every checkpoint, travelers are searched and simply asked to declare how much drugs they are carrying. "Then the soldiers will then tax them on how much they are carrying," said Ko Sai.

However, the Palaung Women’s Organization, based on Burma’s borders with China and Thailand, asserts that the Burmese regime is largely to blame for the drug trade.

While the ethnic armies are reported to be selling large amounts of drugs across the border, the Burmese authorities will also be profiting from the surge, according the organization’s latest report, "Poisoned Hills," which also says that opium production is increasing in Burmese government-controlled areas at an alarming rate.

The women’s organization says that police "anti-drug teams" extort opium growers by demanding bribes to turn a blind eye, and to fill out eradication reports incorrectly to show that drug production is decreasing.

Reprinted with permission from The Irrawaddy, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.