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No Victory in the War on Drugs in Northern Thailand



A Thai police officer keeps watch in front of bags of drugs before they were destroyed

CHIANG RAI – Two recent developments show how the war on illicit drugs is literally never-ending. At home, the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha unveiled another five-year master plan. Abroad, Thai anti-drug enforcers joined China, Laos and Myanmar in a renewed effort to take back control of the Mekong River from drug smugglers in the Golden Triangle region that includes Thailand’s far North.

Taken separately, the two steps are impressive. The ONCB plans to bring the public into its confidence. Its new master plan calls for better education. It calls for both prevention of drug abuse — the demand side of the dirty business — as well as putting more pressure on the supply side — the drug dealers.


Offers to rehabilitate drug abusers are to be expanded, after more than 303,000 users surprised authorities with requests for treatment last year. The drug kings running trafficking rings from their prison cells are to face a large-scale crackdown. At first glance, it seems the aura of reform is catching on and motivating the anti-drug community as well as political activists.

The diplomacy of another Mekong River group is even more daunting. The last such effort ended in murderous violence. Police in Chiang Rai arrested nine Thai anti-drug soldiers thought to be employed as enforcement muscle for drug traffickers. They allegedly killed 13 Chinese sailors, innocent bystanders in a violent area.

If that was not enough, Chinese authorities were so disillusioned with their long-time allies in Myanmar that they effectively invaded the country. Drug lord Naw Kham and three accomplices were snatched in a paramilitary operation. Hooded and handcuffed, they were spirited off to Kunming for a quick “trial” and execution. Naw Kham was supposedly the paymaster of the nine accused soldier-killers.

That was only last year. In the 18 months since, there has been no positive effect on the drug trade. Every ONCB estimate and working paper claims the Myanmar-based drug gangs are producing more ya ba tablets, crystal “ice” and heroin today than when Naw Kham was caught. The nine soldiers are, officially, awaiting trial.

So the newest domestic plan to pursue the war on drugs envisions a new version of the “holistic” approach. It will help drug abusers while trying to take drug dealers off the street corners. Of course ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra also had a plan to remove the local drug peddlers. After some 2,500 dealers and innocent bystanders were killed under his campaign, the effect on supplies and prices of drugs remains to be seen.

The dictator Sarit Thanarat, probably unwittingly, began the current war on drugs on July 1, 1959. That was the day opium and dens were banned. Sarit was uncomfortable with the government running the opium monopoly. It is a kind of irony that a huge government apparatus has since been formed to oppose drugs — operations far larger, more expensive and more deadly than the opium dens. And still there is no strategy to track, capture and neutralise the top ranks of the drug traffickers, almost all of whom live in Myanmar.

Authorities have been pursuing this war on drugs for three generations. It may not be the longest war in history, but it is arguably the most frustrating. That’s because of the word that is never heard. No Thai leader has ever proclaimed that “victory” is the goal. That is probably because victory can’t even be defined. But another five years of this unproductive battle against illicit drugs is a depressing idea.

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