Fighting fire by chasing the smoke

Shan State's transnational narcotic trade thwarts Thai efforts to stem drug flow

Liam Brewin Higgins

International relations | Asia, Southeast Asia

18 July 2019

Liam Brewin Higgins on Thailand’s war against drugs on its western border

It comes as no surprise that as long as ethnic violence, conflict and systemic ethnic discrimination continues in Myanmar, often fuelled by the proceeds of the narcotics trade, Thailand will strive in vain to stem the tide of narcotics slipping through its western border.

The production and manufacturing of narcotics continues to be a vital source of income for a number of Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) in Myanmar as well as for some of the battalions of the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) stationed in the Shan State.

Since the days of the Chinese nationalist invasion of Myanmar in the 1950s, and into the heyday of the notorious drug lord Khun Sa, the Shan State has been the epicentre of the Golden Triangle, producing large quantities of heroin and methamphetamines.

The ASEAN 2016 Drug Monitoring report found that 90 per cent of the opium cultivated in Myanmar, the second highest producer of opium in the world, is grown in the green hills of the Shan state.

Opium continues to be grown in significant quantities in the Shan State, despite some Burmese government attempts at drug eradication, because there is a continued, high demand for heroin in neighbouring countries and further afield.

As well as this, the social and economic barriers associated with Shan villagers transitioning from growing opium to growing other products such as coffee has in the past hindered the Burmese government’s attempts of drug eradication and alternative development.

More on this: Drug war, still poor

Thailand is highly susceptible to trans-national drug trafficking because of the extraordinarily porous, unpredictable and clandestine nature of the Thai-Myanmar border.

Meanwhile, joint operations between Bangkok and ASEAN as well as other international partners have been unable to reduce the flow of drugs across the Thai-Myanmar border, despite the creation of an ASEAN specific anti-narcotic cooperation center.

Thailand has often taken the lead in countering narcotics within ASEAN, having deployed 996 drug enforcement officials across the Thai provinces of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai since 2015, as well as setting up 1450 temporary checkpoints further within these border provinces.

Even at formal and permanent border check points, the significant numbers of foot and vehicle traffic, such as at the Tachileik-Mae Sai border crossing, means that thorough checks of vehicles by the Thai Army and other border agencies are often only sporadically conducted. While the Thai government has demonstrated that it can intercept large quantities of methamphetamines (with Thai authorities seizing 516 million yaba—pills combining caffeine and methamphetamine—in 2018 alone) the flow of drugs into Thailand and beyond has not been significantly reduced by the Thai government’s anti-narcotics activities.

It is also the case that in more remote areas of the Thai-Myanmar border region, the Thai Army is reliant on electronic signals and human intelligence to intercept trafficking via informal pathways. The United States has supported Thai efforts to intercept narcotics crossing the border by supplying one of only two full body scanners in Thailand, which are critical in uncovering narcotics hidden on the person of a trafficker.

Added to this, because large sections of the border are extremely difficult to access, these areas are not actively patrolled by the Thai Army, leading traffickers to use remote sections of the border for smuggling operations.

The task of even just reducing the amount of narcotics being trafficked into Thailand across the border is further complicated for agencies, such as the  Royal Thai Police and the Thai Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB), because sections of the border, on the Myanmar side, are controlled by EAOs and not by the Tatmadaw.

Thailand’s relationship with Myanmar’s bitterly divided EAOs have varied considerably since Burmese independence, from cooperation to outright hostility and conflict.

Narcotics, originating from Myanmar and trafficked into Thailand via both official and illegal border crossings into Thailand, are sold relatively cheaply in the Thai market, or sold onto more lucrative markets, such as Australia.

A United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime 2013 threat assessment report found that a single gram of heroin in Australia could cost up to $1000  per gram. Meanwhile, a single Yaba methamphetamine pill, often produced in small drug labs or factories, can cost as little as one Thai Baht (US $0.033) to produce and is trafficked from just within the Myanmar border into Thailand utilising a web of corruption and bribery to bypass Thai police and army checkpoints.

As a consequence of the significant flows of narcotics across the Thai-Myanmar border, Thailand has a vested interest in the ongoing peace process between the Burmese government and EAOs. It is therefore prudent, from the perspective of reducing drug trafficking in Thailand, that Bangkok should take a more active role in the peace process.

Bangkok may be reluctant to take a bolder approach to its bi-lateral relations with Myanmar because of the important economic relationship between the two countries and because of the prevailing non-interventionist and sovereignty focused norms of ASEAN.

However, given the significant amount of societal and personal harm that narcotics cause in Thailand and regionally, Thai authorities should seriously consider addressing the narcotics problem more fully at the source, rather than trying to catch the smoke as it wafts ceaselessly over the Shan hills and into the Kingdom of Thailand.

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