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Thursday, 13 July, 2000, 21:59 GMT 22:59 UK
Thailand battles drug factories menace
Thai village defence unit in action
Thai village defence unit in action
By Simon Ingram on the Thai-Burmese border

Relations between Thailand and Burma are under mounting strain over the activities of illicit drug manufacturers operating along the border between the two countries.

Bangkok says about 50 small factories producing a synthetic drug known as methamphetamine are operating in Burma's northern Shan state, under the control of the ethnic Wa minority.

Millions of methamphetamine pills are flooding into Thailand, where drug abuse especially among young people is on the rise.

A commander speaks to new recruits
A commander speaks to new recruits
Thai Village defence units are being set up all along the northern border.

Their purpose is to catch the smugglers carrying consignments of illegal methamphetamine made in neighbouring Burma.

For the druglords, the remote hilltribe areas provide easy access into Thailand.

It is a measure of the army's failure to stem the narcotic tide that these untried militias are being drafted into active service.

I set off towards the border accompanied by tour guides.

Pills produced on 'industrial scale'

An ethnic Burmese settlement where it is believed illegal drugs are manufactured
An ethnic Burmese settlement where it is believed illegal drugs are manufactured
From an abandoned army post, I was able to look down into the settlements where, it is claimed, members of Burma's ethnic Wa minority are manufacturing methamphetamine pills on an industrial scale.

There are hundreds of kilometres of unmarked, unprotected border, which amounts to an open invitation in effect to the drug producers in those valleys over on the Burmese side.

Until only recently, Thailand's biggest drug problem was home-grown.

UNDP view: Synthetic drugs are greater problem than heroin
UNDP view: Synthetic drugs are greater problem than heroin
As Bengt Juhlin of the United Nations Drug Control programme explains, it is thanks to a largely-successful crop-substitution policy that the fields which once produced opium poppies are today sprouting corn.

"The problem of synthetic drugs is tending to overtake the traditional problem we had with heroin," he says.

"I think we can clearly see the threat in the future is in the field of synthetic drugs."

Road-blocks and vehicle searches can occasionally produce some spectacular seizures.

However, it is a hit-and-miss process for the police.

Synthetic drugs can be made anywhere and are easily concealed.

Tip of the iceberg: A Bangkok police haul of methamphetamine
Tip of the iceberg: A Bangkok police haul of methamphetamine
The vast haul in a Bangkok police warehouse is probably just the tip of the iceberg.

It is predicted that 600,000,000 methamphetamine pills will enter Thailand this year.

The Burmese connection has added acute political sensitivity to the drug question.

Burmese collusion?

Drug burning in Rangoon
Drug burning in Rangoon
Despite the well-publicised drug burning exercises staged regularly in Rangoon, Thailand suspects Burma's military government of colluding with the druglords.

Sukhumbhand Paribatra, Thailand's deputy foreign affairs minister hints that some kind of retaliation is possible.

"It is a matter of self-preservation," says Mr Paribatra.


It is a matter of national security

Sukhumbhand Paribatra, Thai deputy foreign minister

"It is a matter of national security and no nation on earth will not consider all possibilities should such a problem, such a threat to national security arise."

If the language seems strong it is because synthetic drugs are sweeping Thai society in a manner that heroin never did.

Thailand suspects the Burmese military of collusion
Thailand suspects the Burmese military of collusion
Methamphetamine abuse is so rampant among the young that schools are carrying out random urine tests on their students.

A drastic step but unless the supply of drugs can be cut off at source, it is probably nowhere near enough.

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See also:

11 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
Thai jail swap investigated
24 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Thailand blames Burma for drugs rise
06 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
Burma's powerful drug industry
21 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Thais shut down online pharmacies
19 Mar 00 | Asia-Pacific
Counting the cost of crime
30 Jul 99 | Asia-Pacific
Thais shoot to kill
23 Feb 00 | South Asia
UN concerned over drugs in Asia
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