Drugs and war destabilise Thai-Myanmar border region

Drugs and war destabilise Thai-Myanmar border region

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Jane’s Intelligence Review – April 1, 2002
Vol. 14 N° 4, April 2002, pp. 33-35.

The upsurge in methamphetamine use in Thailand is significantly increasing and contributing to regional conflict as the Thai military takes on the producers and smugglers. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy reports.

In November 2000, the head of the Thai National Security Council identified drugs trafficking as the major threat to Thailand’s national security. More specifically, Thai officials have blamed the situation in neighbouring Myanmar and have claimed that Yangon is conducting ‘narcotic aggression’ against Thailand.

While consumption of methamphetamine within Thailand has skyrocketed in recent years, the destabilising effects of the drugs trade is not just social: the violence that characterises the geopolitical situation in Myanmar as groups vie for control of the lucrative trade, and the resulting militarisation of the Thai-Myanmar border in response is aggravating the situation.

The mountainous Southeast Asia area known as the Golden Triangle has a long history of opium production. At its peak, the approximately 225,000km2 area overlapping Myanmar, Laos and Thailand produced up to 3,000 tonnes of opium in the early 1990s. At the turn of the 20th century, opium production in the region was concentrated in Burma, (now Myanmar). A century later, Myanmar was estimated to have produced 1,087 tonnes in 2000, according to both the UN Drugs Control Programme and the US Department of State, a significant decline from 1993 (when estimates range from 1,791 to 2,575 tonnes). Thailand had almost entirely eradicated its own production (six tonnes), while Laos, producing 167 to 210 tonnes, still stands as the world’s third largest producer, after Myanmar and Afghanistan.

Beyond opium production and the geopolitical problems it poses, it is the production of methamphetamine that is designated as an increasing regional threat. Ephedra vulgaris, growing wild in northern China, is a low, shrub-like plant that contains ephedrine, an alkaloid that is widely used in modern medicine as a bronchodilator. However, ephedrine is also the main precursor for methamphetamine, a powerful and illicit stimulant of the central nervous system.

Methamphetamine and amphetamine are Amphetamine-Type Stimulants (ATS). Methamphetamine, known as ice or speed in English, or yaa baa (‘mad pill’) in Thai, is a hydrochloride. It differs mainly from amphetamine, a sulphate, in its higher potency. Primary and secondary effects of methamphetamine consumption are reputedly worse than those of regular amphetamines and range from paranoia, and extreme aggressiveness to schizophrenia and even death. Recent research suggests it has more neurotoxic effects than heroin, cocaine or alcohol. It has not yet been scientifically proven that ATS are physically addictive.

Production and consumption

Since the mid-1990s, methamphetamine manufacture in Myanmar has exploded: it is now the main producer in Southeast Asia, and Thailand is its principal consumer market. Within Myanmar, the main producer is the United Wa State Army (UWSA), currently the strongest ethnic army in the country, with an estimated 20,000 men. The UWSA emerged from the aftermath of the 1989 implosion of the Communist Party of Burma, which was made up of 90% of ethnic Wa. After allying itself with the central power in Yangon, it took over most of the territory and the illegal business of narcotics warlord Khun Sa and his Mong Tai Army.

The great innovation that has led to the designer drug explosion in Southeast Asia lies in the diversification of producers who had hitherto limited themselves to the opiate trade but are now involved in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Thai and UN sources estimate that methamphetamine production in 2001 in Myanmar amounted to 800m pills, out of which some 600m were exported to Thailand.

Amphetamine consumption is not new in Thailand – the drug has long been used by farmers and truck drivers to enable them to work longer hours. However, in 1996, Khun Sa’s surrender to the Myanmar junta disrupted the opium and heroin markets and increased prices. Methamphetamine, which is cheaper than heroin, quickly filled the gap and became a recreational drug for an increasing number of Thai youth.

Thai authorities consider this new drug phenomenon a multidimensional threat to national security. Beyond the social and health problems arising from illicit or licit drug use, methamphetamine use is of special concern in Thailand in that many young people are consumers. While heroin consumption was and is still mostly seen as anti-social and marginal, methamphetamine consumption is an altogether different phenomenon which has penetrated all social classes as well as the very young. The Ministry of Health estimated in November 2001 that 91% of Thailand’s 2.65m drug addicts (4.3% of the general population) are ‘addicted’ to methamphetamine.

The drug is so popular with young people that it is frequently sold in schools. The UN found that in Bangkok, students made up around 40% of new methamphetamine users in 1997 and 1998, while the average age of first-time users is 13. The Office of Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) estimated that nationally, in 1998, up to 190,000 high school and college students (1.4% of the student population) used drugs; by 1999 the figure had risen to 460,000 (12.4%).

Another study jointly conducted by several universities, research institutes, the ONCB and the Narcotics Affairs Section of the US embassy found that 16.4% of the Thai population consumed illicit drugs in 2001. Methamphetamine seems to be the most popular drug, ahead of marijuana, heroin, opium, and ecstasy. Rightly or wrongly, methamphetamine consumption is now viewed as a major social scourge that directly threatens the youth and Thai society as a whole.

Crossborder violence

Apart from the serious health and social issues posed by methamphetamine use, Thai authorities are concerned about the impact that drug trafficking has on national security. Methamphetamine seizures doubled between 1996 and 1997 (1,500kg), between 1997 and 1998 (2,800kg), and again in 1999 (4,500kg or 50m pills). During the same period, heroin seizures declined by almost a third, with only 511kg confiscated in 1998. Meanwhile, the huge increase in methamphetamine production in Myanmar has continued. In 2000, some 800m pills (or 72 tonnes) were manufactured there; Thai authorities seized 4,752kg of methamphetamine between January and August 2000.

The increase in methamphetamine trafficking has coincided with increasing armed violence on the Thai-Myanmar border, where numerous incidents of varying intensity have led to major crises between the two countries. On the Myanmar side of the border, the heavily armed UWSA is perceived as the main threat to regional and national stability. It reportedly ran about 50 methamphetamine laboratories in 2000, and 80 in 2001, located between Mang Pa Liao and Homong, but concentrated around Mong Yawn.

The northern portion of the border area has been the scene of repeated armed confrontations between the pro-Yangon UWSA and the SSA, one of the last armed resistance movements opposing Yangon’s authority. In the southeast, a war is waging between two factions of the Karen insurgent movement – the pro-Yangon Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Karen National Union (KNU).

According to the Thai Third Army, which is in charge of the northern areas, the entire border seems to be spotted by methamphetamine laboratories. In addition to the UWSA facilities, the DKBA ran 50 such laboratories in the Myawaddy area in 1999. Both the UWSA and the DKBA organise the crossborder trafficking into Thailand and, with increasing frequency, Laos, across and via the Mekong River (Mang Pa Liao). On the other hand, both the SSA and the KNU have said they are opposed to illicit drug production and have taken military action against laboratories and drug caravans in some cases.

The protracted conflict in Myanmar often spills over into Thailand, where soldiers on the run as well as drug traffickers and couriers use the many refugee camps for cover. Shells fired from Myanmar and even crossborder incursions by regular military forces (tatmadaw) into Thailand are not rare. The DKBA often attempts to hit what it views as KNU rear-bases on Thai territory, while the tatmadaw and the UWSA strive to take their common enemy, the SSA, from the rear by crossing into Thailand.

Since 1999, incidents involving the UWSA have multiplied, both because of its drug production and its war with the SSA. In Thailand, this has strengthened the perception that both the UWSA and drug trafficking are major threats to national security. The border area is indeed a risky zone: in April 1999, in Ban Mae Soon Noi, south of Fang, nine Thai villagers were killed by drug traffickers most likely affiliated with the UWSA. In such situations, Thai authorities have tried to seal the border to prevent further incursions. For example, the San Ton Du checkpoint (north of Tha Thon), which used to be one of the main methamphetamine gateways into Thailand from the UWSA stronghold at Mong Yawn was closed in August 1999. In July, some 800 Thai soldiers were deployed along 50km of border in the Chiang Mai area, facing the Mong Yawn valley. The result was that the Wa drug traffickers, main targets of this ambitious operation, redirected their trafficking flows towards a hill route used by the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) when it conducted guerrilla operations. The route uses over 100 hill paths crossing the Thai-Myanmar border.

Countering the threat

From the Thai point of view, it seems that the major security threat of communism has been replaced by drug trafficking. When traffickers started using CPT paths in order to cross illegally into Thai territory, Thai authorities themselves redesigned their main anti-communist body, the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), into a dedicated anti-drug unit. The ISOC is now completing a large defence system made up of the Third Army and the National Security Council. In 2000, the Third Army launched its Territorial Defence Training Scheme, a programme intended to strengthen the Thai-Myanmar border by arming 592 border villages and training them for self-defence against incursions of armed groups and drug traffickers.

The relationships between crossborder violence, trafficking and insurgency are complex and can exacerbate each another. For example, the conflict that pits the UWSA against the SSA is often made worse by either the trafficking of the former and the anti-trafficking operations of the latter. The very presence of the SSA along the Thai border can hamper the UWSA’s drug business by hindering the passage of drug caravans. On one occasion, the SSA actually raided a UWSA methamphetamine laboratory in September 2000 opposite the Chiang Dao district, seizing and destroying some 100,000 pills. The Myanmar military itself struck back against the SSA, backed by two battalions of its UWSA ally.

The struggle between the UWSA and the SSA for control of the border territory has been made worse by the displacement of population – mainly Musers and Wa -from the Chinese border area. This was probably orchestrated by Yangon and Beijing to prevent trafficking activity from crossing into China. It also serves the UWSA’s territorial interest, by acting on the demographic balance of the Shan State.

Forced relocations are commonly conducted by the tatmadaw in Shan state, and the same tactics are now being used by the UWSA. This sparked off a reaction from the SSA in November 2000, leading again to a seizure of some 200,000 pills in laboratories ran by Muser and Wa people – and by the Myanmar military.

This last confrontation provoked an armed incident between the tatmadaw and the Thai army in early December 2000, when Myanmar mistook the SSA attack for a Thai assault. Such clashes between regular Myanmar and Thai forces occur in particular during the dry season offensives of the tatmadaw against what Yangon calls “ethnic insurgents”. The latest intense border violence erupted in February 2001, when the Myanmar army took over a Thai military outpost manned by 10 soldiers on a hill in Mae Fah Luang district (Mae Salong), expecting to take an SSA base from the rear. The Thai Pha Muang Task Force quickly retaliated and took the hill back, killing some 50 to 80 Myanmar soldiers. Later on, the Myanmar army attacked SSA positions around the border town of Tachileck. Stray shells from across the river border fell on the Thai city of Mae Sai for three days, while both the Myanmar army and the UWSA repeatedly entered Thai territory.

In 2001, the Thai government, which hosts the annual Cobra Gold military manoeuvres with the US Army, set up a special fighting force dedicated to anti-drug operations along the border. Task Force 399, based in Mae Rim (Chiang Mai) and made up of 200 men from the Thai Special Forces and Border Patrol Police, is assisted by 20 instructors from the US Special Forces’ 1st Group. While the USA has increased its assistance to Bangkok’s war against drugs, notably by providing two Black Hawk helicopters, it is likely that the UWSA has acquired Chinese surface-to-air HN-5N missiles.

About the author

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Dr. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy holds a Ph.D. in Geography from the Sorbonne University (Paris) and an HDR (Habilitation à diriger des recherches or "accreditation to supervise research"). He is a CNRS Research Fellow attached to the PRODIG research team (UMR 8586).

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy est docteur en géographie, habilité à diriger des recherches (HDR), et chargé de recherche au CNRS. Il est membre de l'équipe PRODIG (UMR 8586).

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