Authorities in the four countries which share the upper Mekong River are finally taking steps to cooperate in fighting the drug traffickers of the Golden Triangle. That is good news. Unfortunately, there also is bad news.
Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and China have formed a committee and will open a coordinating office early next year. Experts from the four countries will sit in the office and share some information and try to focus on how to combat drug smuggling along and across the Mekong.
Isn't this what the internet was designed for? The new office in Chiang Mai, according to the Prime Minister's Office of the Narcotics Control Board, will be heavy on paperwork, light on enforcement. That will remain a national responsibility. As for the other side of the drug problem — users, abusers and victims — the new office has no known plans.
This seems a weak response to a problem that continues to worsen. On Thursday, authorities will burn drugs seized in criminal cases that have already been handled by the court. The bonfire will consume 2,167 kilogrammes of illicit drugs, almost all of them either ya ba (methamphetamine), ya ice, cocaine or heroin. It is the 44th such bonfire, considered to be an effective method of destroying the drugs as well as providing a blazing reminder: The amount of drugs seized is probably 10% or less than the amount of drugs trafficked and sold in Thailand.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) last week confirmed reports in this newspaper from last May of a "relapse" in narcotics production in the region. Opium production and harvests this year were three times the level of 2006 — a year when optimists were predicting the end of heroin production in the Golden Triangle. Heroin use and abuse have risen in all four countries involved in establishing the new Chiang Mai anti-drug office. And of course the spectacular rise in the trafficking and abuse of amphetamine-type drugs from cheap ya ba to ecstasy is well known and documented.
This is why the decision to open and staff the new anti-drug office in Chiang Mai is curious. It falls far short of a determined, international effort to fight drug trafficking. According to the description provided at the weekend by ONCB Secretary-General Permpong Chaovalit, the new centre will allow officials to share intelligence and, thus, to formulate better strategies in drug suppression efforts. An estimated 30% of all drug trafficking in the region is centred on the Mekong itself, demonstrating clear failures in the current, patchwork attempt to battle the big-time producers and druglords.
More conferences and meetings are fine, but hardly require this new centre. Information sharing is absolutely necessary to beat back the offensive trafficking of drugs out of the Golden Triangle. But this is the information age. Yet another static headquarters with xerox machines and meeting rooms is unlikely to achieve much.
Imaginative leadership from among the four countries is needed. Diplomats must make it clear that the core problem is Myanmar-based drug-makers and drug lords. Information can be shared at the speed of light via the internet. But old-style police tactics such as border patrols that date back to the 1970s' drug mule trains have failed to halt the tide of drug trafficking.
For years, authorities including the ONCB have been promising a "holistic approach" that addresses all facets of drug trafficking, peddling and abuse. Instead, we are due to see more of the same failed approaches.