How Thailand Became The Center of Southeast Asia’s Narcotics Trade

On November 12, Thailand made international headlines for announcing the seizure of 11.5 tons (one billion US dollars’ worth) of ketamine in a warehouse in Chachoengsao Province. The information that led to the seizure was provided by the Taiwanese government, which was conducting investigations connected to another shipment of ketamine imported from Thailand.

However, two weeks later, the government’s preliminary tests revealed that part of the seized substances was in fact trisodium phosphate, a cleaning agent. Justice Minister Somsak Thepsuthin said the initial identification of the substance as ketamine was based on an erroneous chemical test kit. 

Doubt still persists, however, as to the credibility of the government’s revised position. After all, this same government also stood by as junior minister Thammanat Prompao claimed that he was actually in possession of flour, not heroin, when Australian police arrested him in 1993. The justice minister claimed that the misidentification in this case was caused by the fact that the chemical test kit used by Thai authorities has never been used on trisodium phosphate, leading to a false positive. Furthermore, the identity of the owner of the massive supply of trisodium phosphate still has not been revealed – even though they would be entitled to the return of their property.  That being said, drugs are often hidden among larger quantities of lawful substances – the bust carried out by Taiwanese officials that led to the events in Chachoengsao involved 300 kilograms of ketamine hidden among 16 tons of calcium carbonate.

Regardless, no matter whether this Chachoengsao bust was indeed a false alarm, it is an important reminder of Thailand’s decades-long role in the drug trade across the ‘Golden Triangle’ of northern Thailand, Laos, China and Myanmar. 

What’s on the Market? The Production Chain Today

Thailand is a major transit country for the narcotics trade. Drugs are produced in laboratories run by Chinese triads in rural Myanmar and are transported by drug traffickers through Thailand and to foreign destinations. The dominant drug is undoubtedly methamphetamine. Meth production has surged in the Mekong region, driving the expansion of the methamphetamine market across Southeast Asia. As of 2019, Southeast Asia was identified as the world’s second biggest market for crystal meth, or yaba as it is locally known, with a UNODC report valuing the trade between $30 billion and $61 billion per year. 

“The entire methamphetamine market alone is worth almost as much as the entire economy of Myanmar, as much as the entire economy of a few Southeast Asian countries,” remarks Patrick Winn, author of the 2018 book ‘Hello Shadowlands’, which explores the meth trade in Southeast Asia. “It’s not just one of the biggest illegal industries, it’s one of the biggest industries, period, in Mainland Southeast Asia.”

While not as dominant as meth, ketamine has also seen a rise in production (and seizures), with 4 tons seized across the region in 2019 – a 14-fold increase on the amount seized in 2014, according to the UNODC report. If the 11.5 tons of seized substances in Chachoengsao had really been all ketamine, it would have represented a threefold increase since 2019, and nearly a 40-fold increase since 2014. 

Yet, the 11.5 ton number seemed believable to Winn. “I thought it was an enormous quantity but I have been expecting to see more ketamine seizures in Thailand for a while.” While there is not a big Thai market for ketamine, Thailand is a key conduit state. “Thailand being a transit country is the perfect place to ship Ketamine onwards,” Winn points out. From Thailand, ketamine could be shipped to Taiwan, Malaysia, possibly even Australia. 

How did Thailand come to be so deeply implicated in the Southeast Asian – and global – drug trade? 

This photo taken on May 2, 2017 shows Thai law enforcement standing behind packages of “Ice” or crystal meth, and ketamine during a press conference at the Office of the Narcotics Control Board in Bangkok. – Shielded by cash and contacts in Laos, ‘Mr X’ is accused of spinning millions of dollars from drugs before a very public downfall which has exposed the role of his secretive, communist country in showering pills across Southeast Asia. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP) / TO GO WITH: Thailand-Laos-drugs-crime, FOCUS by Aidan JONES and Jerome TAYLOR

History of the Thai Narcotics Trade

Thailand’s history with the drug trade begins – as did most things after World War II – with the CIA. “The Golden Triangle would not exist were it not for this alliance between the CIA and the Kuomintang (KMT),” Winn reveals. 

When the Communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, most KMT (or Nationalists) soldiers followed Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan. However, some KMT units on China’s southern border instead fled further south, to Myanmar and northern Thailand. These KMT exiles were given what Winn calls “seed capital” by the CIA, in the form of “guns, bullets, rice and radios.” From there they were able to take over the local opium trade in the poppy-abundant region. 

By 1963, KMT army unit leader Chang Chi-fu changed his name to Khun Sa (“Lord of Prosperity”), and transformed his unit into a private army. Recognizing that most of the profit in the drug trade lies not in transportation but production, Khun Sa moved his army unit up the supply chain by recruiting chemists from the PRC to set up laboratories in the remote mountainous villages of Myanmar, mostly in Wa or Shan state. They moved beyond opium production to the production of pure heroin. 

After a seven-year stint in a Burmese jail following an altercation with other KMT officers in 1967, Khun Sa moved to Thailand, where he established his base in Ban Hin Taek, Chiang Rai. Meanwhile, the CIA continued to support Khun Sa and promoted the Thai-KMT partnership to, in the words of historian Alfred McCoy, “provide a secure rear area for the KMT,” despite dwindling prospects of the KMT successfully retaking mainland China by force.

With help from the CIA and his private Shan-based army of 20,000 men, Khun Sa won control over the Golden Triangle. By 1980, the US Drug Enforcement Agency estimated that 70% of heroin consumed in the US came from Khun Sa’s organization. Accordingly, 70% of America’s heroin was being trafficked via Thailand, which had become a major entrepot for the drug trade with its advanced infrastructure for international trade.

Thaksin’s War on Drugs

As drug production in the Golden Triangle became more sophisticated, methamphetamine gradually grew in importance. Unlike other drugs, crystal meth found a huge market in Thailand, where it was given the nickname yaba in 1996. Long-haul drivers took yaba tablets – then sold at gas stations – to stay awake for overnight trips. 

In 2003, however, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra cracked down on meth usage with the ill-fated ‘War on Drugs’. As with Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte’s current attempt, the ‘War on Drugs’ was criticized by Human Rights Watch as an excuse for “arbitrary killings.” According to an official investigation, there were some 2,800 extrajudicial killings by 2007 – half of which had no connection to drugs. 

Thaksin’s ‘War on Drugs’ immediately raised international concern. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions sent an urgent message to the Thai government in 2003, to which Thaksin responded with the iconic line: “The United Nations is Not My [F**ing] Father.” 

There is little political appetite to launch such a contentious ‘War’ now, even as crystal meth usage in Thailand has risen higher than ever. Winn attributes this in part to the fact that the first drug war didn’t work. “It was primarily a war on yaba – well, yaba is widely available in Thailand much more so than it was in 2003, so what’s the point of shooting more poor people?” 

This is a two-part article. This first part will discuss the history of Thailand’s narcotics trade. The second will discuss the market in recent years, and what’s next for the drug trade in the Golden Triangle.

Written in conjunction with Kevin Patumwat

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