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Border town struggles to clean up its drug image

A statue of the Chinese philosopher Confucius watches over the playground of Arunathai’s Chinese school. Photo : Jim Andrews
Arunathai’s former mayor, Liu Hua Chang, runs one of the town’s most successful businesses, a motorcycle dealership. Photo : Jim Andrews
Chinese signs are everywhere in Arunathai—this one, on the banks of the town’s lake, forbids fishing with nets. Photo : Jim Andrews
A shootout in a Thai town on the Burmese border is a reminder that the illegal drug trade is thriving in northern Thailand, ...

A shootout in a Thai town on the Burmese border is a reminder that the illegal drug trade is thriving in northern Thailand, despite efforts to crack down.

“Two policemen were shot by drug dealers in the noodle shop over there,” said a Swiss volunteer teacher, pointing across the road to where the clash occurred the day before.

Welcome to Arunathai, aka Nong Ook, a dusty little Thai town whose one main street leads to a narrow country road that ends abruptly at the closed Burmese border 3 kilometres away.

For the police officers, it was a close call. In the clash with the drug traders, troops quickly sealed off the town and a tense standoff occurred as the two forces of law and order argued over ownership of confiscated drugs. The injured officers were taken to hospital, where they recovered.

Arunathai - literally “the place where the sun comes up” - was mostly built on drug money. The town is Thai in name only - 90 percent of its 1,600 families are ethnic Chinese, direct descendants of Kuomintang forces who sought refuge in this remote corner of Thailand in the chaotic years following World War II. Although successive Thai anti-narcotics campaigns have replaced opium-producing poppy fields with alternative crops, the raw drug and its derivative, heroin, are still successfully smuggled from Burma across the nearby, porous border.

But the battle in the main street of Arunathai was over an insidious alternative to opium and heroin. As Burmese and Thai government efforts to stamp out the trade gained strength in recent years, methamphetamine, or so-called “ya ba (crazy medicine),” joined the shopping list of illegal, addictive substances produced and marketed by operators characterized by author and Burma expert Bertil Lintner as “merchants of madness”.

Millions of smuggled methamphetamine pills are confiscated by Thai police and members of the government’s anti-drugs force every year, and hundreds of once prosperous dealers are serving long sentences in the country’s prisons.

Crooked police officers and local politicians are among those behind bars and some have paid the ultimate penalty for tapping into the lucrative trade - this week four senior Thai police officers from northern Thailand were sentenced to death by a Thai court for trying to sell 150,000 “ya ba” tablets for 11.25 million baht to an undercover agent in a sting operation.

Crackdowns have failed to stem the trade. In the first three months of a “war on drugs” launched by Thailand’s former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2003, more than 40 million methamphetamine pills were seized and 43,000 dealers were arrested. The controversial campaign came at a huge cost in human lives, however—at least 2,500 people were killed, mostly in extrajudicial “executions”.

Thaksin’s radical campaign, however, only interrupted the trade in methamphetamines, and after a lull the annual haul of the addictive tablets rose steadily from 17.7 million in 2004 to a current estimate of nearly 30 million.

The events of 2003 still hang heavily over Arunathai, where local people are reluctant to talk about Thaksin’s “war on drugs”. The recent shootout in the noodle shop is shrugged off as just another incident in the continuing tension that holds the little town in its grip.

Thai army and border police checkpoints straddle the one paved road into town, while army bases dot the border area. Local community leaders who work to keep the town drug-free claim the continuing trade is carried out by smugglers who are unwanted outsiders.

It wasn’t always so. When fleeing remnants of the anti-Communist Kuomintang, defeated in 1949 by Mao Zedong’s forces, settled here after being pushed out of the Chinese western province of Yunnan and then out of Burma, many of the refugee soldiers kept themselves alive by cultivating opium and selling it on a relatively open market.

Arunathai - then a tiny settlement with the name Nong Ook - was ideally located amid the rolling uplands and mountains of Northern Thailand. The climate, soil conditions and elevation were just right for the cultivation of the poppies that provided opium.

Better still, the region was remote from the reach of officialdom. A mule track was the only way in to the settlement, and few outsiders ventured the long journey from the nearest towns of any size, Chiang Dao, 50 kilometres south, and Chiang Rai, about an equal distance east.

Today, another nearby township established by Kuomintang forces, Santikhiri, perched picturesquely on the Doi Salong mountain, attracts thousands of tourists annually by cleverly marketing its fascinating history. On its one main street, handicraft and souvenir boutiques jostle with guesthouses for space, hemmed in by mountain slopes clothed in fruit orchards and tea plantations. On the outskirts of town, a luxury resort beckons with an infinity pool where swimmers can sip sundowners as they drink in the magnificent views.

Arunathai, on the other hand, is a very poor cousin, a shabby little backwater where it’s difficult to find even a cup of the tea that has made Santikhiri famous. Its one guesthouse offers very simple accommodation for 300 baht a night.

Yet whatever Arunathai lacks in tourist facilities it makes up for in authenticity. Ninety percent of its estimated 5,000 people are ethnic Chinese, tracing their ancestry back to roots lying deep within China. Signboards are written in Mandarin as well as Thai, and sometimes only in the Chinese script.

Liu Hua Chang, who has served three terms as Arunathai’s kamnan, or local mayor, and is now the owner of a motorcycle agency, is a prominent and proud representative of these second-generation ethnic Chinese. His father - whose own father hailed from the far eastern Chinese province of Jiang Su - was captain of a mule train company in the 93rd Division of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist army, the Kuomintang.

The 93rd Division’s presence in this region of Indochina dates back to World War II, when the allies accepted an offer in 1942 by Chiang Kai-shek to commit some of his crack troops to help protect the supply routes between Rangoon and Shan State, the so-called “Burma Road”.

Units of the 93rd Division from China’s Yunnan Province established a base in Kengtung, Shan State, but came under heavy bombardment by Thai aircraft flying in support of Japan’s Northern Army.

The surviving Kuomintang forces withdrew into the jungle-clad mountains of eastern Shan State and fought their way back to China.

At the end of the war in Asia, in 1945, a reconstituted 93rd Division found itself again in action when civil war broke out in China between Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kuomintang and the Communist forces of Mao Zedong.

When Mao Zedong emerged victorious in 1949, several units of the 93rd Division in Yunnan Province refused to surrender and withdrew to Burma. For the next 20 years they fought for survival against Burmese government forces and troops of the outlawed Burmese Communist Party.

At the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, America’s Central Intelligence Agency hired Kuomintang troops in Shan State to slip into Yunnan Province on espionage missions - and so began a murky chapter in which the Kuomintang were dragged into the opium trade to finance their undercover operations.

Most of the Kuomintang forces were pushed out of Burma in 1961 and settled across the border in Thailand, establishing bases in areas under constant threat by Thailand’s emerging Communist movement. The Thai government took eager advantage of the Kuomintang’s anti-communist stand and enrolled the Chinese soldiers in its campaign to eradicate the rebels.

As a reward for their assistance in ridding Thailand of the Communist threat, the Kuomintang troops and their families were given sanctuary. Many were granted Thai citizenship.

It took several years, however, to wean the new settlers away from the opium, after a Western anti-drug drive began in the 1950s and the Thai government made trade in the drug illegal in 1959. In 1967, a Kuomintang commander, Tuan Shi-wen, told a British newspaper: “We have to continue to fight the evil of communism, and to fight you must have an army, and an army must have guns, and to buy guns you must have money. In these mountains, the only money is opium.”

Today, the fields of opium-producing poppies have disappeared from the mountainsides of this region of Northern Thailand, replaced by alternative crops like fruit and tea. But, despite Thai government efforts to stamp out the influx of drugs from Burma, methamphetamine pills still drive a lucrative but illegal part of Arunathai’s economy and the potential for shootouts on the main street remain.

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