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Is the triangle still golden? The politics of opium and the new regime in Thailand.

The North of Thailand is a strange place. The cloud forest of the highlands pushes up between Laos and Burma (which now insists on calling itself Myanmar). Neither neighbour is very friendly to Thailand. But the hill tribes know nothing of the borders. They wander more or less where they want, slashing and burning and leaving sterile black holes in the deep green of the hills. This is the Golden Triangle, where most of the world's opium comes from. The forests are dotted with heroin refineries and crossed by mule tracks along which the cargoes go out to the ethnic Chinese syndicates in Thailand, and, increasingly, Myanmar and Laos, which feed the world's markets.

It is hard not to see evidence of the trade. When the poppies are in flower and hillsides glow red, and in the hot season travellers marching to the villages crash through fields of bent stalks. Some of the bell-like heads containing the seeds are still there, and the seeds rattle inside the pods as you brush past.

Many of the tribesmen themselves smoke opium, and addiction is an increasing problem amongst the young. Cynics in the towns say that there are two types of tribes: the poor and happy ones, who smoke opium and don't sell it; and the rich and stressed ones, who sell but don't smoke. Commercial prudence and personal opium consumption are not found together. The smokers use opium for relaxation, sex and medicine. Two pipes produce a sense of well-being. Five pipes are said to increase male sexual stamina. The tribesmen say that regular smoking prevents malaria and, more believably, that it eases the pain of their constant gut diseases. Apparently thirty pipes kill.

All ages and both sexes use the drug, and venerate people with high opium tolerance as |opium professors'. At night, on the bamboo floors of the stilt houses, the pigs still grunting a few feet below, the users melt the resin and use a thin stick to smear it onto the pinhole aperture of a carved wooden pipe. Then they lie down, heads resting on a rolled blanket, to pull the sweet-smelling blue smoke. For then baht a pipe (about 20p) they let the sillier travellers try.

Opium cultivation in the Golden Triangle is a relatively new industry. Arab merchants introduced the Chinese to opium in the late thirteenth century, and its medicinal value soon created a demand which was met by the hill tribe cultivators of southern China, who found that the poppies grew well in their thin soil. For a number of complex reasons the hill tribes migrated south. Many did so after the Second World War, because China and Burma, never tolerant of inflammable minorities, became brutal. The tribes took their poppies with them, and cultivation began in the triangle which is formed by Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. The triangle was not yet Golden: it took the Vietnam war to do that. But the foundations for a big industry were laid. Chief amongst its architects and later chief amongst its princes was Khun Sa, the grand opium warlord of South East Asia: part Chinese, part Shan. He has ridden the turning tides of Indo-Chinese politics very cleverly. His first appearance was with the Kuomintang (KMT), the exiled nationalist army of Chiang Kai Shek which had taken refuge in Burma. Their money for the continuing was against Communist China came from the CIA sponsored smuggling of opium. And that was where Khun Sa was useful. During the 1950s and 60s he was a crucial adviser to the KMT. But did not remain an employee for long. In the early 1960s he set up his own opium-running venture in northern Thailand, using the contacts gained during the KMT years. Since then Khun Sa has spoken with a number of alternating and contradictory voices. Sometimes he has been a principled Shan nationalist, and has used the rhetorical power of nationalism to bind an exiled people closely and bloodily to him. He developed and armed the Shan United Army (SUA), which now acts as his personal bodyguard and finances its own anti-Burmese operations by acting as the controller and courier of much of the Golden Triangle's opium.

Sometimes he has been an agent of Burmese government policy. In 1966 he was engaged by the Burmese to stamp on the Burmese Communist Party (BCP). That, of course, he was only too happy to do. If he does have political sympathies, they seem to be genuinely anti-communist, and the contract allowed him to strangle his own trade competitors in the opium market (the BCP) and gave him an excuse to boost the SUA without the Burmese getting too worried.

Sometimes he has been a tub-thumping American imperialist. When the Americans moved into Vietnam the opium barons were delighted. There was now a big local market amongst the GIs, and Khun Sa, with his solidly anti-communist credentials, was an important and well paid intmediary in the CIA's own heroin trafficking which it used to pay for its shadowy games throughout the region.

Mostly, though, Khun Sa has been a master businessman, pretending to be nothing else. He has had a colourful time. In 1967 the KMT tried to end SUA involvement in opium by sealing the mule-tracks into Thailand and Burma. Khun Sa resisted, therew was a lot of shooting, and the blockade was broken. But Khun Sa himself, along with a bunch of SUA troops, was routed into Laos and pushed into the arms to Burmese customs officials. It took until 1975 for Khun Sa to bribe his way out of his Burmese prison. But when he did so, he found that the Burmese has been working steadily and unwittingly away on his behalf. They had smashed up the KMT's hold on the opium business. The USA pulled out of the area at about this time, and so Khun Sa had no serious competitors. He took full advantage of the vacuum, multiplying the number and sophistication of his refineries and consolidating his hold on the farmers and the conduits out of the region.

As soon as the Americans ceased to have any great interest in Indo-China their narcotics policy reversed. Heroin on the New York streets was electorally embrassing. And so the United States tried to undo the work its secret service had laboriously done during the 60s and 70s. It found an ally in the Thai government. This was no surprise. Firstly, Thailand has always been uneasy about the explosive potential of the minority groups in the north. Their alliances shift very quickly, and Thailand cannot afford to let any of them get too powerful. Thailand is also unpleasantly close to some nasty Communist nations, and so needs a bit of American stroking to clam its nerves. And, finally, Thailand is a poor land. Any contributions from ideologically decent nations are gratefully received.

America's Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had a big cheque book. It paid out enough to Thailand to suppress the opium trade for the White House to be able to answer potentially embarrassing questions. Not much of the money was spent on eliminating opium. Most of it found its way into the private accounts of Thai officials. Some kind of show was necessary for the DEA's archives, however, and so the Thai army would (and does) occasionally hack down some poppy fields in northern Thailand. And that is about it. Everyone seems happy with the system. Everyone, of course, except the heroin addicts and the poppy farmers, many of whom grow nothing but opium and, after an army operation, have to shift on or starve until the next season's poppy crop.

There have been other efforts. The Thai royal family promoted a crop substitution programme, which offered incentives to hill tribes to grow crops other than opium. The scheme, by and large, has been a dismal failure. The tribes are poor, and opium pays better than tea. They are also conservative and independent, and resent efforts to force them to confirm to the norms of a country which they do not call home.

In 1982-83, in an ultimately counter-productive show of zeal, Thai troops forced Khun Sa out of Thailand into the mountains shadowing the Kok river valley in Burma. This meant that Khun Sa had to re-organize a little, but he suffered no great harm. Indeed, it served Khun Sa well. For the communist regime in Laos, seeing that there is a lot of badly needed money to be made by sponsoring opium, have created an opium haven in Laos. Khun Sa's tentacles spread deep into Laos. The Thai army's shells merely forced him to change the addresses of some of his branch offices. Khun Sa does not seem to be in competition with the Laotian government: there is a happy symbiosis. The trading continues, but with less risk and with a national crest on the headed notepaper.

On February 24th 1991 a military coup toppled the Thai government. This was no great surprise to anybody. Military coups are commonplace there. The average Thai regards them, with bored familiarity, as the usual method of administering a political enema. The people carry on shuffling round the paddy-fields regardless. This time, however, there is hope of a real change for the better. The Bangkok businessmen are quietly happy with the new regime. Foreign investors are snuffling busily round the fledging industries, and the financial services men, nervous about the future of Hong Kong, are wondering seriously whether a move to Thailand might be worth their while. The new government is a patrician one of old-guard feudal conservatives. It promises to cut corruption by slashing red tape, and the foreign men in suits are very encouraged by that. It is apparently very conservation conscious. It hates Communists. Its principles and personalities have been applauded in the recent election.

There is a good of speculation in Bangkok about how all this will affect the opium trade. The Thailand envisaged by the new government is a glittering free-enterprise zone, culturally closer to New York than to Kuala Lumpar. It hopes that it can rely on the Americans to underwrite the dream and to stop Peking or its satellites from spoiling it. It knows too that much of the corruption which clogs the wheels of Thai business feeds on opium. To entice the Americans, Thailand will have to be a cleaner and smoother place in which to trade stocks and shares.

There is some early evidence of anti-opium zeal. At the end of March 1991, Thai fighter planes and helicopter gunships strafed warring drug armies on the Thai-Myanmar border. Partly this was because the drug factions were getting too excited too near Thai territory: a mortar shell had landed on a Thai village, killing three Thais. The story made the headlines of the English papers in Bangkok and embarrassed the new government. There were three reasons for the embarrassment. Firstly, Khun Sa's army, the Muang Thai, was involved. In 1989 a New York jury had convicted Khun Sa of smuggling heroin into the USA, and the Thais thought that his presence so near to Thai territory might suggest that they were not taking America's interests seriously enough.

Secondly, Thailand is trying to develop tourism in the Golden Triangle area. |Thailand: the Land of Smiles,' simpers the poster. There were few smiles in Thaton, the damaged village, on March 24th 1991. And Thaton, say the tourist brochures, is where you pick up your bamboo raft for an idylic drift down the Kok river.

Thirdly, and most significantly, the government was concerned that the north of Thailand would be seen as a wild anarchic land, beyond the reach or rule of Bangkok, where outlaws had private kingdoms, private armies, private legal systems and enormous private and untaxable fortunes. All of which is perfectly true. But a gesture was needed to convince the people and Washington and Khun Sa that, although it was only a month old, the government meant what it said, or what, given a little encouragement, it intended to say.

To convince the West that it is in earnest, Thailand will have to do more than fly its OV10 counter-insurgency planes occasionally over Chiang Rai province. The real work will have to be done by the security men in the Bangkok offices who are charged with the hunting of the big heads: the Chines middlemen who shift heroin across the frontiers and keep the refineries bubbling. Also, some realistic alternative livelihood will have to be found for the thousands of hill tribesmen who depend on poppy growing. Khun Sa insists that he has already moved out of the narcotics world and is now a simple cattle, jade, and timber trader. Nobody believes him, although it is probably true that much of his opium money comes nowadays from the taxation of the profits of other dealers operating in his territory. But his insistence is significant, and may indicated an intention to change to new things. Khun Sa is not a young man, and his nine lives must be almost used up. To run heroin you need luck, confidence and an army. There are easier ways to earn a living. There are signs that Khun Sa is trying to brush up his image before posterity takes over. He has decided to let history view him as a Shan resistence fighter. He claims that he has been misrepresented by the press. |It is time I do a disappearing act and let the Shan people bear witness for me', he said in a recent statement.

If the grand employer disappears, or shifts industries, will the whole region shift with him? It is no longer true to say that Khun Sa |is' the opium industry of the Golden Triangle. But he is pivotally important, both as an individual and as a barometer of the forces impinging on the opium industry as a whole. Slowly, perhaps, the poppies will wither. The government is trying harder than ever to strangle them.

Yet the alternative industries present other problems for the government. Ironically, these too are problems resulting from the need to impress the West. The possible industries are timber, cattle, tea and coffee. The problems are environmental ones. The timber is teak. Thailand and its neighbours have some of the world's largest remaining stocks of this valuable hardwood. Newly green western governments protest loudly at their decimation. Yet the contracts which were made in 1989 between Myanmar and Thai logging companies to remove Myanmar's teak forests were sponsored by the Thai army, who were the unseen beneficiaries of many such agreements. And the men now at the helm of government are, of course, army men -- those who encouraged or countenanced the start of the teak venture. Tea, coffee and cattle present the same problems. The trees have to come down before the cows can graze of the tea bushes grow.

The government, then, is in an impossible position. If it does not stamp on the narcotics trade and its corrupt children, the West will not smile as broadly as Thailand wants it to. If it does cut down Khun Sa and his descendants, it will force northern Thailand into environmentally distasteful policies which, again, will alienate the West.

If anything happens, it will happen slowly. For the foreseeable future Khun Sa will continue to send his mule trains through the high forest and the bamboo thickets to the little jungle airstrips, and the poppies will still glow on the mountain fields of Chiang Rai.

Charles Foster is completing a book about northern India.
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Title Annotation:Laos, Myanmar, Thailand border
Author:Foster, Charles
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:May 1, 1992
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