Myanmar is key to ending regional drug trafficking
Asean needs to engage more closely with the group's newest member in order to combat amphetamine production and distribution in Shan state and along the Thai border
Following the recent seizure of 3.3 million methamphetamine pills with an estimated value of Bt1 billion in Nakhon Pathom's Buddha Monthon district, Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung has pointed the finger at Myanmar and Vietnam for the massive flow of illicit drugs into Thailand. Chalerm is the man charged with fighting the scourge of drug trafficking in this country.
Despite the large hauls of meth - known locally as yaa baa - that have been seized by Thai police lately, the drug problem seems to be continuing unabated. The issue has been a major concern to the Asean regional grouping, which at its meeting in Bangkok a few weeks ago proposed a drug-free Southeast Asia by 2015.
Representing Thailand at the meeting, Chalerm asserted that this goal depended on other countries asserting that both Myanmar and Vietnamese authorities must do more to resolve the narcotics problem in the region.
There's no denying that the drug problem won't go away without Myanmar taking urgent action, because drug production predominates in the Wa region of Shan State.
Systematic drug production is alive and well in Wa areas concentrated in the northeast of the state. This has gone on for decades with the protection of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), whose drug barons control both territory and drugs. The UWSA has been called Asia's largest and most dangerous drug cartel, and the group continues to make massive profits from trafficking.
Poppy cultivation in the region involves mostly female farmers. They are ordered to grow poppies by the Wa authorities, who in turn collect taxes from distributors. Researchers report that drug production in the Wa areas has attracted buyers from neighbouring countries including Thailand. They meet growers and producers at a UWSA-controlled marketplace, where the best-quality opium is available. The business is conducted in an atmosphere that could be mistaken for a tea-auction house.
Many of the illicit drugs flowing into Thailand originate in the Wa areas. The town of Tachilek, opposite Thailand's Mae Sai district in Chiang Rai, is the main drug-smuggling channel. Other trafficking routes straddle the porous border between our countries. Rivers along the frontier in northern Thailand are now patrolled heavily as part of the government's tougher measures to crack down on trafficking.
Over the years, due to periodic clampdowns by the Thai authorities, the base for the production of the precursor chemicals such as pseudoephedrine - used to make methamphetamine - has relocated to Vietnam.
It's true that it's difficult to reduce, let alone wipe out, the drug problem. But to tackle the issue more efficiently, Asean member-countries need to talk to Myanmar more consistently, and on a range of issues, not just about its democratic aspirations. The drug problem in areas under the control of ethnic groups should be one of the priority concerns. It's important that we work together to reduce the severity of the problem.
It seems these days that police seizures of yaa baa and other speed pills are a daily occurrence. The momentum of the narcotics-suppression policy must be sustained continuously and consistently for longer periods, regardless of Cabinet reshuffles or changes of government.
Without closer ties among the Asean partners, it will be impossible to implement an effective policy across the Asean community. It's time to pool resources and technology in order to stem the flow of illicit drugs. First and foremost, that effort begins with Myanmar. Asean members must make sure that the drug-trafficking issue is a priority at every Asean gathering, and that Myanmar is an integral part of the resolution of the problem.
We need more action, not rhetoric, from Asean leaders in putting an end to drug trafficking in the region.