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Rival to Heroin Is Thailand's New Nemesis

November 26, 1999|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MAE SAI, Thailand — Here in the Golden Triangle, amid jungles and the legacies of heroin and death, Thailand has mobilized its army against smugglers who are flooding this country with a devilish drug known as yaba, or crazy medicine.

Few countries have moved more aggressively or successfully against heroin than Thailand. Once a major producer, the country no longer grows enough opium to satisfy the demands of its own addicts.

But just as Thai officials were prepared to declare victory in the war against drugs, yaba surfaced as a new threat, addicting as many as 1 million Thais and wreaking social havoc throughout the country.

"I think we can win some of the war against drugs but not all of it," Sorasit Sangprasert, Thailand's top anti-narcotics officer, said in the capital, Bangkok. "Once we find a solution for one drug, another drug appears. It's like squeezing a balloon. One bulge disappears, and another springs up."

Yaba is the local name for a form of methamphetamine, similar to speed, that is usually smoked but can be ingested or injected.

It has been available in small quantities for decades in Thailand. It did not become widely popular, particularly among students, until a few years ago, when the region's economic crisis and Thailand's anti-drug campaign changed the pattern of drug use and distribution in Southeast Asia.

With money tight, drug addicts started looking for a cheaper alternative to heroin, and recreational users for a quick hit to wipe away the gloom. And with Thailand closing down many smuggling routes along its border, drug barons in neighboring Myanmar wanted to find a high-profit narcotic that was easier to produce and distribute than heroin.

Yaba fit the bill so perfectly that today it is close to dethroning heroin as the trademark of the Golden Triangle, the mountainous region that took its name during the Vietnam War as the world's greatest producer of opium. The area includes portions of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Thai authorities estimate that 1.4% of the nation's teenage students are addicted to drugs. Eighty percent of the teenage users say yaba is their drug of choice.

"If you'd been here five years ago, you'd just have seen bamboo shacks," said Pronthep Iamprapai, Thailand's senior anti-narcotics officer for the Golden Triangle, who stood on a hill surveying this modern town and, just across the river in Myanmar, the equally bustling town of Tach Liek. "These are towns that yaba built."

Anti-narcotics officials say as many as 15 million yaba tablets a month are flooding into Thailand from Myanmar, formerly called Burma, often with the connivance of Thai dealers. Each pill, which costs about 3 cents to produce, can fetch as much as $5 in Bangkok, about 450 miles south of Mae Sai. Most are used domestically, though modest quantities are exported to the Middle East, Singapore, Malaysia and other places where Thai laborers work under contract.

Smuggling is profitable and difficult to stop: Thailand and Myanmar share a 1,300-mile border, and an individual porter can cram about 100,000 yaba tablets into a backpack. But Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, who considers drugs a threat to national security, has run out of patience and sent the army to the border to work with anti-narcotics police units. Since January, at least 20 Myanmar smugglers have been killed and millions of yaba tablets seized in firefights that often rage for hours in the border area.

"As of now, there is no need to talk. Why should we talk?" asked Gen. Chetta Thanajaro, security advisor to the Thai Interior Ministry. "If they cross into Thailand on one leg, we will shoot that leg. If they cross on two legs, we will shoot two legs."

In the isolated, jungle-covered border region between this town and Chiang Rai, about 40 miles south, the Thais set night ambushes and run patrols out of six-person, sandbagged outposts. Their enemy is Myanmar's 20,000-member United Wa State Army, which has expanded its heroin empire to include yaba. Western anti-narcotics agents in Thailand say the United Wa force is among the world's largest and best-armed drug-dealing organizations.

The Wa, an ethnic minority, fought Myanmar's government for years to establish a communist state but signed a cease-fire with the country's ruling generals in 1990. In return for ending the rebellion, Wa leader Wei Hsueh-kang has been allowed to run Myanmar's Shan state as a fiefdom, even though Thailand sentenced him in absentia to death in 1987 for masterminding a shipment of 1,500 pounds of heroin, and Washington has offered a $2-million bounty for his arrest. Wei contends that the group's income is generated by diamond mines, not illegal drugs.

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