New Internationalist

Crazy medicine

Southeast Asia’s ‘war on drugs’ is about managing profitable criminal enterprises, not closing them down.

There is a growing body of scholarship that documents the interconnections between the global drugs trade, state officials (and unofficials) from many countries and organized criminal gangs. An integral aspect is the ‘shadow economy’ – dealings between what is considered legitimate business and what is not. This is as evident in Thailand as it is in Colombia and Afghanistan.

Recently the Thai government of Abhisit Vejjajiva put out a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arrest warrant and a $2m reward for information leading to the capture of the Burmese United Wa State Army commander Wei Hsueh-kang on charges of drugs trafficking. So I thought it would be useful to visit the topic of Southeast Asia’s infamous narcotics trade and explore how drugs, organized crime and organized political violence are shaping the region’s future.

The hunt for Wei Hsueh-kang
The ‘war on drugs’ in Southeast Asia has historically been a battle between complex forces for strategic control – not least the Burmese and Thai governments, the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the CIA. The CIA catalyzed the explosion of opium in the Golden Triangle (a 950,000 square kilometre mountainous region spread over parts of Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam) in the 1950s where it backed first the Kuomintang (KMT) – remnants of General Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese nationalist forces – and then a host of other militias as part of the US’ ‘anti-communist’ covert wars in Indochina.

US support for the KMT’s drug-funded fifth army ignited a race to control this expansive trade, with Burma, Thailand and later Laos competing for a share of the burgeoning business. The Burmese state created institutions like the Union Military Police to deal drugs in competition with the KMT and in 1989 when the junta began to sign ceasefire agreements with ethnic armies they were given special ‘concessions’ to grow poppies.

Since 2005 new junta-backed militias have sprung up under a government-subsidized plan where they are allocated land in what was rebel-held territory. First they lay down an irrigation system, and then set up heavy machine guns and mortar posts on hilltops to protect the crop. If you are found to be selling to anyone other than government-sanctioned militias your fields are destroyed and your life essentially forfeit.

A military report obtained by the Shan Herald Agency for News showed how the junta manipulates the drugs issue as part of its war strategy against the ethnic nationalities opposed to its rule. The report, ‘praised the Kachin Defense Army (KDA), a ceasefire group notorious for its drug activities, as a group co-operating with junta authorities in the fight against drugs, while blaming the Kokang ceasefire group for heavy involvement [in production]. The reason for this became clear later in the year, when the KDA voluntarily agreed to become a pro-government militia, while the recalcitrant Kokang were invaded and occupied.’

The Wa, whose armed factions occupy parts of Shan State in eastern Burma and areas close to the Chinese border, are the target of this latest offensive by the Thai government at the behest of the DEA. Since it signed an alliance with the Burmese junta the United Wa State Army (UWSA) has largely been left alone, a result of which has been a massive spike in narcotics production and trade since the early 1990s. In an effort to bring Burma’s ethnic nationalities under control the junta granted impunity and political legitimacy to traffickers and even seats in the National Constitutional Convention which drafted the new constitution prior to the November 2010 elections.

Wei Hsueh-kang, a commander of the UWSA’s Southern Command (SC), tops the list of wanted DEA drug barons in the region and has been on a Thai death list since 1987. Paradoxically, the UWSA SC has traditionally been financed by Thailand and the KMT. Whereas the Northern Command (NC) comprised mostly ex-Burma Communist Party members allied to China.

The keystone of the UWSA’s opium and methamphetamine economy was the Mong Yawn Valley, close to Chiang Rai in Thailand. From 1998 Thai companies, some with cosy relationships with the military, cashed in on the drugs boom in Mong Yawn by building infrastructure including a road linking the valley with San Ton Du in Thailand. Top Thai military officials quietly approved the contracts. However, recent reports from the area indicate cultivation may have slowed or possibly been eradicated entirely.

Both Hsueh-kang and his elder brother, Wei Hsueh-lung, are protégés of notorious drug lord and former leader of the now defunct Shan United Army (SUA) and Mong Tai Army (MTA), Chang Chi-fu, popularly known as Khun Sa. Chi-fu, a former Kuomintang soldier, who was a CIA ‘asset’ in the jargon of the spy agencies. He did not consider himself a ‘drug lord’ but a revolutionary and a freedom fighter for Shan independence.

The Wei brothers broke away from the SUA and joined the SUA’s archrivals the Wa National Army (which became the UWSA) in 1984. When the Thai-Burma-backed nationalist faction of the Wa joined forces with the traditionally China-friendly ‘Red’ Wa drug production soared, starting with taking over the operations of Khun Sa and moving into Yaba production by 1994. Yaba is an amphetamine product derived from ephedrine extracted from a grass that grows wild in southern China.

The Wei brothers also own legitimate businesses in central Burma – a move echoed by those in many parts of the world doing business in the shadow economy where agents of the legal and illicit economies meet, and swap business cards.

Despite pressure from Thailand, a result of the junta’s staged efforts to curtail poppy cultivation in Shan State to curry favour with the US has been that, because areas controlled by the UWSA and other militia were protected under the ceasefire agreement, only crops farmed by poor villagers have been destroyed. (See the Shan Herald Agency for News’ December 2003 report Show Business: Rangoon’s “War on Drugs” in Shan State.)

Burma Army units working in frontier areas are encouraged to ‘tax’ and collect rations from the local population in a policy called ‘live off the land’. As the Shan Herald News Agency reports: ‘A Burma Army major in Kehsi even frankly told villagers in a meeting: “Of course, you have to grow (opium). If you don’t, you’re crazy. You only need to give us a fair share so both of us can survive.”’

Smugglers are constantly inventing new tactics to transport the toxic goods, often encased in other products such as timber and coal. One smuggler told Shan Drug Watch: ‘In 2008, some smugglers began buying newborn infants from poor families, saying they were childless and wished to adopt them…The infant was then disembowelled and filled up with drugs, administered disinfectants and perfumes to hide the stench, and carried across the border. Like other methods, it was quite popular for a while, but the police later got wise to it, and it had to be abandoned.’

Massacres in Thailand
In January and February 2000 senior Thai military officials visited Chiang Rai province on the northern border with Burma/China. Situated at the heart of the Golden Triangle the region has a long history of narcotics production and rebellion. They concluded that the production and trafficking of narcotics was the foremost threat to Thailand’s national security; the gravest threat since the communist insurgencies of the 1970s and 80s.

In February 2003 then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – a former police officer from Chiang Mai, which lies at the heart of the drugs trade – signed Prime Ministerial Order 29/2546. So began what has become known as Thailand’s ‘war on drugs’. It has been a violent affair. Between February and August 2003 over 51,000 arrests of suspected dealers and users were made and government-linked death squads carried out over 2,800 extra-judicial killings in three months, including several children. Though the death count stopped at this figure, the real toll was certainly far higher, as after receiving criticism from Amnesty International and other human rights groups Thaksin simply told them his government would no longer keep a record of fatalities.

Most of those killed were shot point-blank in the head by ‘unidentified gunmen’, some after having gone to police stations as part of the government’s rehabilitation plans. Others were kidnapped by uniformed police in broad daylight. Some complained that their relatives were assassinated for refusing to pay police bribes. Others hadn’t even taken drugs in over two years and had been on government addiction programmes. ‘Murder is not an unusual fate for wicked people,’ Thaksin told critics.

An official report never made public later found that half of those killed had no connection to drug dealing or trafficking. Interior Minister Wan Mohamad Noor Matha said at the time: ‘They [drug dealers] will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace. Who cares?’

As the BBC’s Jonathan Head wrote at the time: ‘The disturbing similarity among the victims – all shot execution style, their bodies found clutching weapons and bags of narcotics, and the fact that there have been no investigations into the killings – has raised suspicions of a deliberate shoot-to-kill policy by the government.’ According to Amnesty International, authorities were not permitting pathologists to perform autopsies and bullets were reportedly being removed from the corpses. In effect, over 2,800 people were executed because the ‘blacklists’ circulated amongst the authorities were compiled using information from compromised sources, by a police force threatened with sanctions for not meeting target numbers of deaths and arrests.

Shinawatra declared the episode a victory in December 2003, just ten months after it began. Whilst it’s true that the bloodletting decimated the street-level narcotics trade, there was a caveat in his speech. A ‘second war’ was taking place. One he described as a long war against ‘dark forces’ and ‘higher elements’. What has subsequently become clear is that this ‘second war’ could not be won (or perhaps was not meant to be won) because the trade was deeply intertwined with Thaksin’s own government, the military and the police forces.

When the Thai military took power in a coup in 2006 they pledged to bring to justice those responsible for the killings. However an inquiry into the deaths carried out by the military at the order of King Bhumibol was dropped due to ‘lack of evidence’ which reaffirmed for many the existence of high levels of legal impunity in the country. The drugs war was renewed in 2008.

Approximately five per cent of Thailand’s 66 million citizens use Ya Bah pills, a type of methamphetamine. The name translates roughly as ‘crazy medicine’ and it has been replacing heroin as the drug of choice for producers. A pill that costs $0.10 to produce can sell for as much as $3.84 in Bangkok, according to one factory owner. Heroin has not disappeared – it’s flowing, predominantly via China, to international destinations. It’s estimated that around 80 per cent of the heroin on the streets of Sydney originates in eastern Burma. The trade is increasing because arms are being sought ahead of a renewed civil war.

As with the global ‘war on terrorism’ and the ‘war on drugs’ in Latin America carried out via Plan Colombia, the drugs trade, and particularly the position of the Wa in this trade, is intimately linked to powerful forces within the very same governments that prosecute the ‘war’. Despite the US-inspired rhetoric of the drugs war the conflict has in truth been going on for much longer and is rooted in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War and the Cold War. 

The fallout from Operation Paper
In 1950 President Truman authorized the arming and supplying of General Li Mi’s remnant Kuomintang forces in Burma for an invasion of Yunnan in Southwest China to counter Chinese support for the Korean communists. The plan, called Operation paper, was concocted by a small clique inside the Office of Policy Co-ordination (OPC) in the US who favoured aggressive anti-leftist policies over the state department’s containment strategy.

In his new book, American War Machine, former Canadian diplomat Peter Dale Scott details how the CIA bankrolled first the Kuomintang in Burma and then the Thai PARU militia. The Kuomintang had financed their war in China with the proceeds of drugs and one US official commented that they ‘developed over time into an important commercial asset for the CIA’. Dale Scott proposes two major outcomes of Operation Paper: that the CIA would for the next 50 years support forces engaged in vastly expanding the production of opiates, in successive areas not previously major in the international traffic; and that this money would supplement the CIA’s efforts to develop its own Asian proxy armies (which led in 1959 to the initiation of armed conflict in the previously neutral nation of Laos, an unwinnable war that soon spread to Vietnam). The policy made headlines again in 2007, when a CIA-linked plot to overthrow the government of Laos was foiled by the FBI. Historically, a large segment of Thailand’s economy was built on the trade in opiates, encouraged by the British Empire. Its current ‘war on drugs’ sees it caught in a US power-play which is having predictable violent results in many parts of the world.

The OPC and CIA’s creation of a major drug traffic route out of Southeast Asia, helped institutionalize what became a CIA habit of turning to drug-funded covert forces for fighting wars wherever there appeared to be a threat to US access to natural resources – in Indochina from the 1950s to the 1970s, in Afghanistan and Central America in the 1980s, in Colombia in the 1990s, and again in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Many of these groups have since been creating mayhem independently of their former handlers in Virginia – a sign of things to come in the Middle East.



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