Monday, March 23, 2009

Opium back with a vengeance in Thailand

Off-season crops are being introduced in the North and new strains of high-yield, drought-resistant poppy are being developed to boost output to meet the ever-increasing demand, writes Somsak Suksai in Lampang, so wiping out its cultivation in the region remains a hugely difficult task
Published: 21/03/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News

Wiping out opium poppy cultivation in the North remain a hugely difficult task.

A large field of poppies grown on an isolated, difficult to access slope of a mountain in Lampang. SOMSAK SUKSAI

Intense crackdowns by neighbouring governments have also not helped to bring drug production levels down.

On the contrary, poppy cultivation areas have expanded in at least seven northern provinces, including Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Lampang and Tak.

Under the latest poppy growing techniques, cultivation of off-season crops is being introduced and new strains of high-yield and drought-resistant opium poppy are being developed to increase opium output to meet the ever-increasing demand.

The Third Army has tried for years to wipe out poppy fields in the northern region, but achieved little success in even keeping poppy cultivation under control.

This is partly because poppy growing is now mostly done in mountainous areas that are difficult to access.

Rising demand has pushed up prices. This, in turn, has encouraged drug dealers to invest more in opium cultivation. Each year, the crop is planted and harvested between November and March.

Lampang deputy governor Samart Lobfa says that the problem is hilltribe people have resorted to a "camouflage" technique in growing poppy alongside other kinds of crops to ensure opium cultivation escapes the notice of drug suppression officials.

"They purposely grow poppy mixed in with other kinds of plants. Off-season poppy cultivation is also under way with the use of modern watering techniques and chemical fertilisers," Mr Samart said.

He said drug production plants are still active in neighbouring countries bordering Thailand. Opium is an essential component for heroin production.

At present, the Third Army and government agencies are doing all they can to destroy the poppy fields that exist in the 104 villages in the seven northern provinces.

Around 90% of the cultivated areas are nearly impossible to access as the hilltribe people are growing poppies deeper in the forests or in treacherous mountainous areas.

Lampang alone has poppy fields extending over large areas in three districts - Chae Hom, Ngao and Wang Nua.

Salis Khampakaew, assistant district chief of Chae Hom, said drug suppression officials need to walk up steep and dangerous hills for hours to reach the opium poppy fields.

"The suppression drive has become a much more difficult job today. Climbing a steep mountain requires a skilful person to guide us," Mr Salis said.

He said if poppy plantations are widely scattered over an entire mountain, it is impossible for the authorities to destroy them within a day.

Mr Salis said this year's largest poppy growing area was somewhere between Ban Lao Su in Chae Hom district and Ban Bo Si Liam in Ngao district.

Sap is extracted from a poppy seedpod. SUBIN KHEUNKAEW

Drug suppression officials recently discovered that new breeds of poppy were being introduced for off-season growing.

The new breeds were developed to suit the coming dry season. This reflects the fact that the demand for opium is increasing.

Chalerm Singkaew, sub-district head of tambon Pongdon in Chae Hom district, said new growing and breeding techniques required a great deal of funding and specialised know-how known only to the major drug traffickers.

Initially, highlanders grew poppy not too far from their homes and then collected the opium for household consumption and for the relief of pain only.

But over the last few years, the soaring price of opium had encouraged a sudden spurt of poppy growing among hilltribe people. Drug traffickers paid the villagers to grow more poppy to feed commercial demand.

Sanpu sae Chao, a village head of Ban Mae Ta Samakkhi in Chae Hom, said the main opium markets are along the Thai-Burmese and Thai-Lao borders.

He said when raw opium is collected and delivered to drug production plants in border areas, it can sell for between 50,000-10,000 baht per kilogramme.

Data from the northern branch of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board said there are at least six drug production plants run by the ethnic Red Wa Army and the Shan State Army in Burma. These plants use precursor substances from Thailand for producing heroin and metamphetamine pills.

Last year, large amounts of painkillers and common cold medicines were bought and sent to border provinces, raising authorities' suspicions that they would also be used as drug precursors.

Third Army commander Thanongsak Apirakyothin stressed the need to enlist the support of villagers and hilltribe people in the campaign to end the illegal poppy growing.

Lt-Gen Thanongsak said a public relations drive is needed to raise awareness against the dangers of heroin and speed pill addiction.

He said as drug problems were mounting in the country, only joint efforts in society could help overcome them.

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