CHIANG RAI– The northern border is rife with drug problems and Chiang Rai’s Mae Fa Luang district is no exception.
One of the area’s most neglected and vulnerable groups are the children of drug traffickers and addicts. They are in urgent need of help.
Many of these children struggle after their parents are arrested on drug offences. Some are even lured to work as drugs carriers for narcotics trafficking rings.
Wipa (not her real name) had to stop her Prathom 4 studies at Ban Huay Pheung School in Mae Fa Luang after her mother, Nanu, was jailed in the provincial prison on a drugs charge more than two years ago.
Stopping school allows the 14-year-old hilltribe girl to work and take care of three younger brothers and a sister.
Wipa’s former teacher believes the girl’s mother was not involved in drug trafficking, but had decided to take the fall for her husband, Kaja.
However, Kaja did not stop trading drugs.
He was eventually arrested and committed suicide while in prison in 2013.
The tragedy forced Wipa to take her four younger siblings to stay with an aunt.
“We miss our mother, but I can’t afford to take them to see her at the prison,” Wipa said.
She works as a labourer by chopping wood and picking green tea leaves to earn 50-60 baht a day. Most of the money is used to buy rice and snacks for her brothers and sister.
She said she has to work because her aunt is also struggling to make ends meet. Her aunt has nine family members to care for.
The aunt’s tiny bedroom somehow has to shelter five more people.
“I miss my mum and want to continue studying, but I am afraid that if I am not around there will be no one to take care of my brothers and sister,” she said.
To complicate matters further, Wipa and her siblings do not have Thai nationality, which makes life difficult for them since they do not have access to state assistance.
Ten-year-old Oraphan, also a student at Ban Huay Pheung School, has to be taken care of by her teachers.
They fear she could be lured into carrying drugs for narcotics networks if she is allowed to stay with her grandmother, who is an opium addict.
The school is taking care of dozens of other vulnerable children.
Oraphan was left with her grandmother after her mother remarried.
She is one of more than 40 children living at the school who are either vulnerable or live too far away to commute every day.
About 70 more children are expected to be cared for by the school over the next few months.
School teacher Nareerat Sriboonruang said the situation is dire for the children.
“Most of the kids are at high risk since they live in border areas, where they could be used to traffick drugs, or end up using drugs themselves,” Ms Nareerat said.
“Children as young as Prathom 3 have tested positive for drugs,” she added.
Mae Fa Luang district chief Worayan Boonnarat said the district is a danger zone for drug trafficking, sharing 92 kilometres of Myanmar’s border.
It is a hard problem to solve because many of the 70,000 residents living in the four tambons next to Myanmar live without employment and in poverty, he said.
Some villagers are paid to hide drugs in their houses before they are transported elsewhere.
More than 10% of children in the district have been affected by the drug problem, the district chief said.
Office of the Narcotics Control Board secretary-general Permpong Chaovalit said the agency is working with the army and local administrative officers to survey schools and children affected by narcotics networks and find ways to help them.
There are 21 routes where drugs can be transported into the district, he noted.
“The problem must be solved inside and outside the country, or our children will become low quality people,” Mr Permpong said.