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Talk of reopened border stirs bad memories for army

A mobile unit from the Foreign Ministry recently visited the northern border to check on a request from the business sector about opening up a couple of border passes linking Thailand with Myanmar's Shan State.

The argument is that the passes would help promote cross-border trade and boost the local economy. It was also reported that the Third Army Area was not exactly thrilled with the idea for fear it could boost drug traffic coming from the Burmese sector of the Golden Triangle.

On the surface, the Third Army Area has reason for concern. A sizeable chunk of the Myanmar sector of the Golden Triangle is controlled by armed ethnic groups and warlords with either peace or cease-fire agreements with the government of Myanmar.

But given the fact that the Thai-Myanmar border is so porous, it wouldn't make sense to send drug caravans through the proposed checkpoints likely to be manned by security officials.

One of the crossings local businessmen would like to reopen is, of course, at San Thon Doo in Chiang Rai. It leads to Muang Yawn, one of the strongholds of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a 30,000-strong outfit that produces some of the world's finest heroin. The Wa also floods the streets of Bangkok and other major cities around Southeast Asia with millions of methamphetamine tablets.

Perhaps the question to ask is: who would benefit the most from these proposed border crossings should the government give the green light for them to be reopened? In the mid-1990s, local businesses were using the same argument - about the need for more cross-border trade, and so on. They bypassed the Army and went straight to the National Security Council (NSC) who was authorised by local officials to set up a border crossing, but with a limited capacity. But that was all that was needed - just enough so they could transport their trucks, tractors, and other heavy machinery to help build towns in the UWSA-controlled areas.

All the while, Thai soldiers on the border were not at all comfortable with the idea that Thai citizens were having so many business dealings with the Wa, much less the fact that the outfit had set up three regiments along the common border. The Thai Army and the UWSA already had uneasy relations. Soldiers from both sides would play volleyball almost on a daily basis at the Sun Thon Doo crossing but kept their firearms within reach.

The three Wa regiments were in areas once occupied by the Mong Tai Army (MTA), an outfit under the control of the late Shan opium warlord Khun Sa. One of the regiments is today commanded by a notorious warlord, Wei Hsueh-kang, an ethnic Chinese with a US$2 million (Bt62 million) reward from the United States on his head.

The UWSA helped the Myanmar army defeat the MTA in 1997. But instead of returning to their stronghold along the Sino-Myanmar border, the UWSA stayed put and built new towns - with the help of Thai contractors.

The turning point for the Thai-UWSA relationship came one morning in February 1999 when authorities found nine Thai villagers from Chiang Mai's Fang district beaten to death, with their hands tied behind their backs.

Some authorities believed the gruesome murders were the result of a drug-deal gone wrong, while the locals insisted the victims were innocent villagers out on a hunting trip. In the final analysis, all fingers pointed to the newly built Mong Yawn, a southern stronghold of the UWSA, about 20 kilometres from the Thai northern border, inside Shan State.

Local media played up the stories, and the military and police came out in force blasting the UWSA. A curfew was imposed in a number of districts in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai visited San Thon Doo checkpoint. Sealing off the border crossing that leads directly to the UWSA stronghold seemed a logical move.

For the Thai soldiers along the border, the new anti-UWSA policy meant their daily volleyball game with the Wa troops had to come to an end. For the Thai nationals who had business dealings with the Wa, the closure of the Son Thon Doo crossing meant alternative routes would have to be found. The call for a border checkpoint in nearby Baan San Maket in Chiang Rai was quickly shot down by the NSC, the very organisation that approved the opening of the Son Thon Doo crossing just a year ago in earlier 1998.

Thai businessmen turned to the Mae Sai-Tachilek border crossing in Chiang Rai to transport their goods to Mong Yawn, while a number of Thai workers began to use the Kok River to travel back and forth to their work sites. The final move came in August 1999 when the NSC declared the UWSA-controlled area off-limits and ordered all Thai nationals and construction companies to return home.

The UWSA desired an entrance into Thailand more than anything. The drug army wanted to befriend Thailand because it does not want to rely solely on China as its only window to the world. The Wa didn't trust Myanmar in spite of signing a cease-fire agreement with it in 1989. In other words, the Wa wanted to diversify their relationships. Pretty ambitious, indeed, for a drug army many of whom were head-hunters just a generation ago.

But the aftermath of the Fang massacre heightened the hostility between the two sides that would turned into a full blown battle. In March 2002 an advance unit was dispatched to Chiang Mai's Wiang Haeng district as part of routine security details to prepare for the visit of HM the Queen of Thailand, who was due to arrive later in the day.

But out of the blue, a Wa drug caravan slithering through Thai territory was intercepted by HM's security details. A firefight went on for four hours, ending with the death of a Thai soldier. Her Majesty was advised to remain in her palace in Chiang Mai.

For the Thai Army, the clash was not just another border skirmish with another Wa drug caravan. The fact that the Queen could not travel freely in her own kingdom was a deep affront to the soldiers. Again, all fingers pointed to the UWSA. It was generally agreed the pro-Myanmar outfit had to be taught a lesson.

Two months later in a pre-dawn raid in May 20, 2002, Thai infantry units and armoured personnel carriers (APCs) supported by light and heavy artillery launched an all-out offensive to take out positions manned by the UWSA.

The APCs, along with soldiers from Special Forces units, cavalry squadrons and artillery units, had been seen taking up positions along the northern border in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son provinces in the past weeks to await instruction. It was supposed to be a military training exercise, the Surasri 143. Few had thought from the onset this field exercise would turn out to be one of the biggest military operations since the Vietnam War.

The battles took place well within Myanmar's territory and went on throughout the day. Artillery fire supported the advancing Thai soldiers carrying out search-and-destroy missions against the UWSA's drug labs and military outposts just kilometres inside the Myanmar border. At the Kiw Pha Wok border checkpoint in Chiang Mai's Chiang Dao district, hundreds of Thai villagers fled deeper inside the country and took refuge at a nearby Buddhist temple until it was safe to return to their villages in a day or two.

The following day, Yangon protested "in the strongest possible terms that the unprovoked attack violated our sovereignty and territorial integrity". Then Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was speechless but the Thai Army insisted Surasri 143 was just a military exercise.

The Myanmar Army held a press conference condemning the Thai military action and made reference to Thailand as "Ayothaya" - to remind the Thai nation of a past that Thailand didn't want to remember. Bilateral ties went into a tailspin and it would be some time before some form of normalcy returned to the border.


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