Drug fight chance lost

Drug fight chance lost

Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya made his first overseas visit — to Myanmar — as a cabinet official last week. At the top of his agenda for talks, including at his meeting with Myanmar President Thein Sein was the issue of illegal drugs. It was an excellent choice of destination and issue. The massive problems caused by illicit drugs puts the problem at or near the top of the public's concern. It is disappointing, then, that Gen Paiboon put the problem back to front.

Even before he left on his overnight visit, Gen Paiboon said his chief concern was drug smuggling from Myanmar to Thailand. He deserves credit for agreeing even to raise this issue with our western neighbour. For years, neither our political leaders nor senior officials have confronted Myanmar. Yet they all know, like all citizens have known for years, that the prime source of all commonly trafficked drugs in Thailand is Myanmar.

The justice minister, however, has cause and effect backwards. The source of illicit drugs in Thailand is not border smugglers. More and stronger border security will not cut, let alone stem the supply. Cross-border trafficking is merely part of a well-organised operation. It all begins deep within Myanmar, where some of the world's biggest drug lords make and market billions of tablets and thousands of kilogrammes of narcotics and other drugs every year.

Only Myanmar authorities can reach the factories that churn out the drugs that addict, degrade and endanger neighbouring countries and their citizens. It is no longer credible that the drug lords are in remote and untouchable areas. The government can go anywhere, but chooses to do otherwise. Thailand closed drug labs two decades ago. Myanmar must do the same.

The Myanmar government, like the former military dictators, profits indirectly from the drug trade. There is also strong suspicion that members of the former military dictatorship profited directly. Some drug lords have become overt and legal businessmen — thanks to a decade-old programme that effectively allows them to remain free so long as they contribute to the economy. The best-known example is a drug dealer even convicted in Thai courts. The man who invented mule-train opium caravans and opened both Thailand and the West to the heroin trade and addiction is a "respected" businessman these days.

Similarly, consider the group that started the methamphetamine craze and its subsequent degradation. President Thein Sein and government openly encourage the United Wa State Army's so-called "legitimate" businesses. Similar to other groups and warlords, members of the UWSA keep money laundering proceeds tight. The very founders of the ya ba trade now "contribute to the national economy", essentially by laundering drug money.

It is ironic that many a foreign visitor to Myanmar stays at hotels, eats at restaurants and travels the country on buses and airlines established or owned by some of the country's biggest drug dealers. Most of the individuals and their most overt businesses can be found on the US Treasury Department's sanctions list, which bars any economic dealings with them. Gen Paiboon's account of his Myanmar trip indicates he never raised the basic drug trafficking issues with his counterpart, or with President Thein Sein. But it is time either Thailand or other friends of Myanmar made it clear the government must end the reign of the drug lords. Until Myanmar takes action against the drug traffickers that it tolerates, there will be no improvement in the battle against illicit drugs.

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