Getting clean in Mae Sot

The far north district is a busy border hub, but it hosts the unwelcome scourge of drugs

Mae Sot is a small area of the northwestern province of Tak bordering Myanmar, with a population of just over 100,000.

Magsaysay laureate Cynthia Maung talks to a Myanmar probationer at the Mae Tao Clinic she founded in Mae Sot district, Tak. KING-OUA LAOHONG

A bustling border point, its commercial heart turns over trade with Myanmar estimated at between 15 and 20 billion baht a year, second only to Mae Sai district in Chiang Rai.

While Mae Sot, along with the districts of Phop Phra, Mae Ramat, Tha Song Yang and Umphang in Tak, buzzes with the huge volume of cross-border trade and investment, it is also plagued with crime, including illegal immigrant workers, prostitution, smuggling of contraband goods and illegal weapons, drug trafficking as well as drug abuse among Thai and Myanmar workers.

These problems have proved tough nuts to crack for security officials in the area.

Mae Sot assistant district chief Kriangsak Boontapuan, who is in charge of local security, said Mae Sot is home to several ethnic minority groups and security officials have to keep a close watch on drug-smuggling gangs along the border.

"Mae Sot has no drug production plants. But across the border is a transit point where huge amounts of drugs are smuggled in," Mr Kriangsak said.

Teams of smugglers known as "ant armies", mostly made up of ethnic minority people in Myanmar, are paid to carry drugs through mountainous terrain to drug traders in the district, who then distribute the drugs to other provinces in the North, he said.

Drug abuse among youths and Myanmar workers also poses an equally serious problem, Mr Kriangsak said.

He said many Myanmar workers in Mae Sot come from Myawaddy, opposite Mae Sot.

A Myanmar worker picks roses at a farm in Tak’s Phop Phra district, one of the country’s biggest rose producers. ASSAWIN PINITWONG

Some workers are hired to do daily odd jobs or work in factories, which are production bases for foreign companies while others are construction workers. Many of the Myanmar workers and teenagers are drug addicts.

If Myanmar teenagers are arrested and detained for taking drugs, but have certificates to verify their status, they are put into drug rehabilitation programmes.

However, there is one great obstacle in that many Thai officials cannot communicate with them in their language, hindering efforts to tackle the problem, he said.

After offenders are put on probation, the Department of Probation under the Justice Ministry is responsible for providing rehabilitation for them.

The department has initiated a rehabilitation project to prepare for the formation of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) next year.

Under the project, the department's Mae Sot office is working with Magsaysay laureate Cynthia Maung, an ethnic Karen who founded the Mae Tao Clinic in Mae Sot, to rehabilitate Myanmar and ethnic minority offenders.

Dr Cynthia is a medical doctor recognised for her devotion to taking care of refugees and displaced people affected by war and ethnic conflict along the Thai-Myanmar border.

Offenders on probation are sent to the clinic to receive counselling and the information the clinic gets from them is forwarded to local authorities.

Probation Department director-general Ruenwadee Suwanmongkol said the Mae Sot probation office has limited personnel to deal with probationers - at a proportion of one to 100.

The office, therefore, needs a lot more volunteer probation officers to support rehabilitation efforts.

Volunteer probation officers comprise people from various occupations such as village heads, kamnans and community leaders.

They play a crucial role in helping probationers to reintegrate into their communities.

Trained volunteer probation officers are responsible for monitoring, advising and looking after and rehabilitating probationers. The get no compensation.

"There are only about 25,000 probation officers nationwide, which is not enough. The Mae Sot office has only 23 officers and workers, but they have to take care of all five districts. Volunteer probation officers are very helpful," Ms Ruenwadee said.

Some of the volunteers use their own house compounds to set up projects based on His Majesty the King's sufficiency economy principle and train Myanmar probationers to plant and harvest rice crops, while some give them other kinds of job training.

The projects help the probationers to reintegrate into society when they return to their country, Ms Ruenwadee said.

She said 50% of the Myanmar probationers are involved in drug cases and are in urgent need of help and rehabilitation. However, when they report to the courts, they do not know about the proceedings.

The department has consulted with Dr Cynthia on how to help them.

Probationers can seek counselling as well as medical treatment from her clinic. The clinic will officially launch a project to help them next month, Ms Ruenwadee said.

Dr Cynthia said the project will ensure probationers can live their normal lives in Myanmar when their probation period ends. They will get job training to make a living and learn how to solve professional and life problems.

She said probationers often do not cooperate with Thai authorities because of communication problems.

"If possible, I want fellow Myanmar to become volunteer probation officers so they can better deal with probationers," Dr Cynthia said.

Amporn Maneesarn, who owns Pathompetch rose farm, the largest such farm in the area that covers 4,000 rai in Tak's Phop Phra district, is one of the volunteer probation officers.

He has set aside a 24-rai plot for projects to train both Thai and Myanmar probationers in various kinds of farming. He also hires probationers as workers on the rose farm.

"We should not abandon those who have made mistakes. We should give them hope, moral support to become good citizens again," Mr Amporn said.

Muttafa, a 28-year-old Myanmar probationer, said many Myanmar people in Mae Sot come from Myawaddy.

They cross into the district and work as hired hands, receiving a daily wage of 80-100 baht. They cross the border to look for jobs in the morning and return home in the evening, Mr Muttafa said.

He said many Myanmar teenagers and workers who have been arrested in connection with drugs have undertaken rehabilitation programmes after being put on probation.

"It is good to have this project. Myanmar should have this project, too. Thai officers are nice, but we still have communication problems. But if we talk with doctors at the Mae Tao Clinic, we understand the legal procedures more quickly," he said, adding that he has now stopped taking drugs and his probation period will end in two months, after which he will become a barber when he returns home.

Roses for sale at a market in Tak. Some Myanmar probationers are hired by local rose farms during their rehabilitation programme. ASSAWIN PINITWONG

A Myanmar worker puts the finishing touches to roses after they are dried at a factory in Tak. Dried roses are popular souvenirs. KING-OUA LAOHONG

Flowers and roses from farms which employ probationers are placed in glass containers of various shapes and sizes to be sold. ASSAWIN PINITWONG

Dr Cynthia speaks to staff of the Department of Probation and Myanmar probationers. The meeting discussed rehabilitation of people involved in crime, especially drugs. KING-OUA LAOHONG

About the author

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Writer: King-oua Laohong
Position: Reporter