Opium will always be associated with the Far East in the popular imagination, but the opium poppy actually originated in the Mediterranean. It arrived in the East, however, over twelve centuries ago, and was later brought to Thailand from China with the hill tribes who migrated from Yunnan province. Opium growing was made illegal in Thailand in 1959, but during the 1960s and 1970s rampant production and refining of the crop in the lawless region on the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos earned the area the nickname the Golden Triangle. Two main “armies” operated most of the trade within this area. The ten-thousand-strong Shan United Army (SUA), set up to fight the Burmese government for an independent state for the Shan (Thai Yai) people, funded itself from the production of heroin (a more refined form of opium). Led by the notorious warlord Khun Sa, the SUA attempted to extend their influence inside Thailand during the 1960s, where they came up against the troops of the Kuomintang (KMT). These refugees from China, who fled after the Communist takeover there, were at first befriended by the Thai and Western governments, who were pleased to have a fiercely anti-Communist force patrolling this border area. The Kuomintang were thus able to develop the heroin trade, while the authorities turned a blind eye.
By the 1980s, the danger of Communist incursion into Thailand had largely disappeared, and the government was able to concentrate on the elimination of the crop, putting the Kuomintang in the area around Mae Salong on a determined “pacification” programme. In 1983 the Shan United Army was pushed out of its stronghold at nearby Ban Hin Taek (now Ban Therd Thai), over the border into Burma, and in 1996, Khun Sa cut a deal with the corrupt Burmese military dictatorship. The man once dubbed the “Prince of Death”, who had a US$2 million bounty on his head from the United States, was able to live under Burmese army protection in a comfortable villa in Rangoon until his death in 2007.
The Thai government has succeeded in reducing the size of the opium crop within its borders to an insignificant amount, but Thailand still has a vital role to play as a conduit for heroin; most of the production and refinement of opium has simply moved over the borders into Burma and Laos. And in the last few years, opium growing within northern Thailand, although still at a very low level, has apparently started to increase again, based on small patches in remote mountains and using a high-yield, weather-resistant breed supplied by the Burmese drug barons.
The destruction of huge areas of poppy fields has had far-reaching repercussions on the hill tribes. In many cases, with the raw product not available, opium addicts have turned to injecting heroin from shared needles, leading to a devastating outbreak of AIDS. The Thai government has sought to give the hill tribes an alternative livelihood through the introduction of legitimate cash crops, yet these often demand the heavy use of pesticides, which later get washed down into the lowland valleys, incurring the wrath of Thai farmers.
The dangers of the heroin trade have in recent years been eclipsed by the flood of methamphetamines – either yaa baa (literally “crazy medicine”) or Ice (crystal meth) – that is infiltrating all areas of Thai society, but most worryingly the schools. Produced in vast quantities in factories just across the Burmese border, mostly by former insurgents, the United Wa State Army, yaa baa and Ice are the main objective of vehicle searches in border areas, with perhaps a billion tablets smuggled into Thailand each year. It’s estimated that three million Thais are methamphetamine users, prompting the Thaksin government into a fierce crackdown in the first half of 2003 which, much to the consternation of human rights watchers, led to two thousand extra-judicial deaths and 51,000 arrests. Things have quietened down since then, but the frequent busts of methamphetamine dealers show that the problem has not gone away.