The arrests last Friday of nine Thai Army officers for the Oct. 5 murders of 13 Chinese seamen spotlight a horrific crime. But the affair is part of a bigger story of how the so-called Golden Triangle of Burma, Laos and Thailand is shifting to become the locus of massive methamphetamine production, and how complicit some units of the Thai army appear to be in the operations.
The nine have pleaded not guilty to murdering the 13, who were on two Chinese freighters allegedly carrying nearly a million amphetamine pills on the Mekong River. Thai Army Maj-Gen Prakarn Chonlayuth, who commands the Pa Muang Task Force which included the nine arrested officers, speculated that a minority ethnic Shan warlord, Nor Kham, based in Burma, had arranged the execution of the 13 Chinese seamen.
Prakarn suggested to reporters that the Shan warlord was extorting protection money from ships on the Mekong and, if owners refused to pay, the Shan gang would kill the crews, hijack the vessels and use the ships for smuggling drugs. No evidence has emerged, however, of anyone else’s involvement in the case aside from the nine Thai army officers, although investigations were continuing.
All of the Chinese victims had been blindfolded, tied up and shot, according to Thai and Chinese media. In their defense, the army officers said they had heard about the assault on the ships by hijackers and later also boarded them, but announced they had discovered 920,000 hidden amphetamine pills and one dead Chinese crew member. A few days later, 12 other Chinese corpses appeared floating in the Mekong, prompting urgent demands by Beijing for Bangkok to investigate the case and punish the killers.
It is a major concern. The murders became a major point of contention between the two countries, with the Chinese suspending all shipping between Thailand and China on the Mekong.
The river has become an increasingly lucrative transshipment route for both countries after China dynamited sections of the river to widen it, streamlined import and export procedures, and improved shipping support facilities. It is also the focus of rising irritation on the part of local companies that are finding themselves increasingly squeezed out by Chinese shippers. According to Xinhua, 116 of the 130 ships involved in international shipping on the Mekong are operated by Chinese companies. They carry a total of 400,000 tons of cargo each way on that stretch of the river, which is flanked by Burma and Laos.
The Golden Triangle is a mountainous region that has been outlaw territory for decades, since Chinese Kuomintang generals led their refugee troops to the area following Chiang Kai-shek’s defeat by Mao Zedong’s Communists. Drug warlords have amassed vast wealth over the decades. It is an area of almost a million square kilometers that comprises some of the most extensive opium-producing areas of Asia, now surpassed only by Afghanistan, which has regained its title of the world’s biggest exporter despite the occupation of the NATO powers.
“There are few who doubt the involvement [direct or indirect] of Nor Kham, the godfather of the protection ring whose members have been collecting fees from ships and traders crisscrossing and plying the Mekong,” said a report by the Shan Herald Agency for News, a nonprofit group in Shan state. It added that those who didn’t play by his rules are often shot.
Although opium production has been going on since the 1920s, the drug lords have recently expanded to include the manufacturing of amphetamine-type stimulants, abbreviated as ATS, because pills, called ya ba in Thailand, are easier to make and do not depend on seasonal farming conditions or high mountains where opium poppies thrive. In February 2010, authorities seized nearly 22 million meth pills in Laos, one of the largest seizures ever recorded in the region. “These drugs are affordable, easy to manufacture and highly profitable for criminal groups,” Gary Lewis, a Bangkok-based regional representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a September summary of a 124-page report titled, “Amphetamines & Ecstasy: 2011 Global ATS Assessment.”
“In our region, ATS are often associated with a modern and dynamic lifestyle. Users don’t face the sort of stigma associated with ‘old-fashioned’ modes of drug administration such as injecting or smoking. This demand offers criminals entry into fresh and lucrative markets,” Lewis said.
There seem to be plenty of those. The East and Southeast Asian regions, home to about a third of the global population, have become one of the most established ATS markets in the world, according to the global assessment report, primarily for methamphetamine. It is estimated that between 3.5 million to 20.9 million persons in the region have used amphetamine stimulants ATS in the past year.
“They have emerged as the primary drug threat in recent years, displacing traditionally used plant-based drugs such as heroin, opium and cannabis. The injecting use of methamphetamine and its associated negative health consequences is reported as a growing problem in the region.”
Overall, the report continued, the number of illicit ATS laboratories dismantled between 2004 and 2009 increased significantly, from just 13 to 458, with the largest number reported in China. “Trafficking patterns in East and Southeast Asia have also shifted during the past few years, particularly in the Greater Mekong sub-region, which includes Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar [Burma], Thailand, Vietnam and the bordering southern provinces of China.
The 93.3 million methamphetamine pills seized in 2009 in China, Laos, Burma and Thailand were a three-fold jump over 2008. That was easily surpassed in 2010, with total seizures of 144 million pills.
“This increased trafficking of methamphetamine pills from Burma to markets in the region was reflected by the single seizure of nearly 22 million methamphetamine pills in February 2010 in Laos, one of the largest seizures ever in the region,” the report stated.
Nearly 50 million methamphetamine pills were seized in Thailand alone during 2010, compared to 27 million in the previous year, according to the UNODC. Although meth production in the Golden Triangle has dropped dramatically, according to the UNODC report, the manufacture of crystalline meth has soared. Thailand has one of the largest markets for methamphetamine pills in the region. It remains the most common form of drug use in the country, although crystal meth has become increasingly widespread.
During the 1990s, Burma-based rebels known as the United Wa State Army (UWSA) dominated parts of the Mekong river’s western shore and allegedly trafficked drugs throughout the region and overseas. Several years ago, Washington issued an arrest warrant for the UWSA’s rebel leader, Wei Hsueh-kang, for alleged involvement in illegal drugs. However, in mid-October, the UWSA issued a statement denying any links to the murder of the 13 Chinese.
The ethnic Wa and Shan are among several minority groups in northeast Burma involved in drugs while simultaneously fighting for autonomy or independence against the regime in Burma.