Saturday, March 8, 2008

Don’t Lose Control in the Golden Triangle

By YENI Saturday, March 8, 2008

A surprise attack on a Chinese maritime police boat on the Mekong River late last month has put the transnational narcotics trade in the Golden Triangle back in the spotlight. It has also highlighted the failure of international efforts to control lawlessness in the region, where renegade militias and other armed groups based in a remote corner of Burma are demonstrating that they remain a law unto themselves.

Thai media reported that the Chinese boat was patrolling the river where it flows between Burma and Laos, under a regional cooperation scheme aimed at fighting drug trafficking. Later, a second boat carrying half a dozen people opened fire as it approached the Chinese vessel. The gang boarded the Chinese craft, shooting and stabbing some of the six police on board before jumping back onto their own vessel to escape.

The clash lasted about five minutes. Three Chinese police were seriously injured in the attack, and have been hospitalized in the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai. According to Pakorn Pothichai, commander of the Thai Navy mission for the Mekong, the gang was believed to be working to protect a shipment of drugs. Sources in the area where the incident occurred suggested that a drug gang based in Burma and led by Naw Kham, who once served under the late drug lord Khun Sa as a member of the disbanded Mong Tai Army, was behind the attack.

Naw Kham’s gang is just one of five armed groups active in the area. The Burmese Army, the Shan State Army-South, the United Wa State Army and a 2-3,000-strong militia known as the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), run by Lin Mingxian (more widely known as Sai Leun), also operate in a volatile region of Burma bordering Thailand, Laos and China.

The notorious Golden Triangle is no longer just a land of brightly colored poppy fields, opium-smoking hill tribes and heroin labs hidden in the jungle. A global US State Department report released last week said that poppy cultivation had indeed decreased in the area in 2006-7, but surveys by the United States and the United Nations found indications that drug gangs had replaced opium cultivation with the manufacture and trafficking of synthetic drugs, such as amphetamine-type stimulants, crystal methamphetamine and Ketamine.

Observers have also noted that Burma’s sector of the Golden Triangle is producing not only narcotics, but is also heavily involved in the trade of other contraband—everything from endangered wildlife to cheap counterfeit pharmaceuticals and pirated CDs. It also plays host to a number of casinos catering to gamblers from neighboring countries.

At the governmental level, Burma is actively engaged with its neighbors China, India, and Thailand in efforts to control drug trafficking. Thailand has contributed over US $1.6 million to support an opium crop substitution and infrastructure project in southeastern Shan State. In 2007, Thailand assigned an officer from the Office of Narcotics Control Board to its mission in Rangoon. Burma-China cross border law enforcement cooperation has increased significantly, resulting in several successful operations and the handover of several Chinese fugitives who had fled to Burma.

The drugs, however, continue to flow across Burma’s borders in all directions. A sharp increase in the production and export of synthetic drugs has prompted some to start referring to the Golden Triangle as the “Ice Triangle.” According to a US report, drug gangs based in the Burma-China and Burma-Thailand border areas, many of whose members are ethnic Chinese, produce several hundred million methamphetamine tablets annually for markets in Thailand, China, and India, as well as for onward distribution beyond the region.

The recent attack on a Chinese police boat should alert all governments in the region to the need to boost their efforts against drug gangs. The governments need to show their serious commitment to preventing money laundering by major narco-trafficking groups in the region, as a means of controlling their networks and business.

At the same time, however, there need to be guarantees that the “war on drugs” will not turn into a killing spree, as it did in 2003, when former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra initiated a crackdown that left more than 2,500 people dead in a matter of weeks.

But any hopes that the authorities will exercise greater restraint in their handling of the problem in the future seem likely to meet with disappointment, after Thailand’s Interior Minister Chalerm Yubamrung expressed his indifference to the human cost of hard-line drug policies. “When we implement a policy that may bring 3,000 to 4,000 bodies, we will do it,” he said.

If Thailand and other countries in the region continue take this approach to controlling the drug trade, there will be no lasting improvement in the situation. The cost in baht and lost lives will be enormous, while drug gangs lurking on the other side of the Burmese border will remain, waiting for their chance to resume their nefarious business with complete impunity.

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