Drug Smuggling Blights Backpacker Adventure Tourism in The Golden Triangle.
Above Photo: Backpackers having fun in Laos (xtremegapyear.co.uk)
The below is an edited report from Agence France-Presse about the massive problems Burma’s illegal drug production and supply are causing to countries in the Golden Triangle region, including Laos and Thailand. It’s a problem only likely to get worse in the region, and one I dealt with in the plot of BACK, where backpackers and drug smuggling in Laos are inextricably linked.
I’ve added the photos for illustration.
Thai police gunboats regularly prowl the waters of the Mekong River in northern Thailand searching for the drug gangs that haunt the territory known to tourists as the Golden Triangle.
Today, it is a popular tourist spot and the start for cruises that go down river to Luang Prabang. There is also an ugly side to the river’s bustling trade.
At one time this frontier region, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet, was awash with heroin, flooding over the border from the then world’s biggest opium producer Myanmar.
Times have changed and now the drug of choice is methamphetamine often in the form of “yaba” — Thai for “crazy medicine” — bound for the streets and clubs of Asia.
“It is very difficult to prevent drug trafficking into Thailand,” said general Manop Senakun, commander of police in Chiang Saen, the Thai town at the gateway to the Golden Triangle.
It is estimated that at least 1.4 billion yaba tablets — with an estimated street value of US$8.5 billion — are being produced each year in the region, and it has become the scourge of a province that is developing a specialised travel related to sports, soft adventure and volunteer tourism.
The drug is mostly made in isolated mobile laboratories hidden in the forests of Shan State in Myanmar, which is still the second largest global source of opium after Afghanistan.
Police “tried every way” to stem the flow of narcotics, Manop said. But it was the notorious slaying of 13 Chinese sailors on the Mekong in 2011 that caused regional authorities to launch a concerted crackdown on trafficking.
China, from where the river snakes, has added its weight to the anti-trafficking efforts.
An operation dubbed “Mekong Safe” — led by Beijing with the involvement of its Golden Triangle neighbours — between late April and late June led to the arrest of 2,534 suspects and the seizure of almost 10 tons of drugs, according to Thai authorities.
China executed Myanmar drug lord, Naw Kham, for the sailor killings. The two boats involved, found with some 900,000 methamphetamine tablets on board and riddled with bullet holes, have been left to rust in Chiang Saen port.
“The frequent occurrence of drug-related crimes on the Mekong River has been effectively contained,” said the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar in June.
A dedicated Thai unit of 30 policemen, with three boats, now patrols a 17-km (11 mile) stretch of the river border. They are needed to make the river safe not just for residents but the thousands of backpackers who take river cruises to get them to Luang Prabang in Laos. The cruises start at Chiang Khong, 40 km south of the Golden Triangle. The small riverside town is also the site of a new “friendship” bridge due to open this December that links highways in Chiang Rai province to Laos.
Despite the security crackdowns, the river’s heavily-armed traffickers are finding alternative routes, with some choosing to trek with their valuable contraband through the jungles from Myanmar crossing the border in the mountains that rise to almost 2,000 metres.
“Traffickers walk in a caravan with 20 to 30 people,” said Manop. “They would have a lot of weapons with them.”
Clashes with the army or the police are common. In one incident in 2012, eight suspected traffickers were killed by security forces and Manop predicts things will only get “more violent”.
Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, a geographer at France’s CNRS national research centre, said he was “not convinced by the efficacy” of the river crackdown.
“We have a few cases of very high-profile seizures, but no real evaluation of how effective these patrols have been,” Chouvy said, adding that networks tend to be small in scale and “flexible”, so hard to track.
Corruption within the very forces meant to catch the smugglers is also a challenge, according to the most recent US Department of State report on drugs.
While production of opium is a fraction of its height in the 1970s and 1980s, Myanmar’s cultivation of the drug has increased in recent years, to some 690 tonnes in 2012 — over 10% of the global total.
Tun Nay Soe of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Bangkok, said the level of production of both meth and opium were at “alarming levels” in the Golden Triangle area.
“I would say it is pretty much still at the epicentre of drug trafficking and production in the region,” he added.
Our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
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Peter Alan Lloyd
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