Thailand prepares for avalanche of speed pills after drugs war

CHIANG RAI, Thailand – Thailand’s army is bracing for an influx of millions of speed pills which were buried by traffickers along the border with Myanmar at the height of a drugs crackdown this year.

Lieutenant Colonel Jeerapan Khrutthalai, assistant deputy director of intelligence for Thailand’s Third Army which is responsible for patrolling the rugged frontier, said traffickers are trying to shift millions of buried pills.

"I can say hundreds of millions," he said. "They buried them in February, March and April, May through to August. It’s about time they are recovered," he said, adding that their lifespan under ground is just three to six months.

This week the Third Army and the border patrol police unearthed over a million plastic-wrapped pills buried at a village in northern Mae Hong Son province; earlier this month they seized two million that also appeared to have been dug up.

Thailand is the world’s largest per-capita consumer of methamphetamines, known here as yaa baa, or "crazy medicine", with five percent of Thailand’s 63 million people thought to be users.

The army said last year that it expected a record one billion pills to be brought in from Myanmar this year, up from an estimated 700 million in 2002.

But now officers say that a brutal three-month drugs war launched by Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in February has managed to halt or divert the flow of methamphetamines pumped out of clandestine border laboratories.

According to police figures released in mid-April — and not updated since then following the furore that greeted their release — 2,275 people were murdered nationwide in Thailand from the start of the war.

While it is not known how many were drug-related killings, the murder tally was widely seen as an indicator of an alarming number of deaths resulting from the no-holds-barred battle and sparked an outcry from human rights groups.

But the bloody images splashed across news updates on Thai television had a clear deterrent effect. Prior to the crackdown, ambushes netting hauls of several million were not unusual, Jeerapan said.

"But ten thousand, one hundred thousand is very common for us right now," he says of the army’s supression efforts which remain on high alert despite the official end of the "war".

However Jeerapan also warned that as the northern frontier becomes better guarded, trafficking routes are changing and drugs are now entering Thailand via the northeast, west and south, and being trafficked into Laos and Vietnam.

Major General Suthep Pohsuwan, commander of the Naresuan Task Force which is charged with patrolling part of the northern border, claims the situation has improved since February.

"We have been successful since the the war on drugs began… It has been really quiet and that is very unusual. There has been less movement because some networks inside Thailand have been dismantled," he said.

Suthep said he believes that overall production has declined because the market has been reduced in Thailand, but he cautioned that army intelligence has revealed traffickers are again on the move.

"According to intelligence information there have been movements opposite this province by armed ethnic groups," he said, referring to the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

Thai and US authorities allege that the militia, which is aligned with the military government in Yangon, is responsible for the vast majority of methamphetamines produced in the region.

Pittaya Jinawat, director of the northern narcotics control office, said he also believes millions of pills are poised for transport into Thailand.

"We are quite afraid that the situation of the smuggling might return to normal levels. One of the signs is that the price of the drugs has become close to the same price prior to the war on drugs," he said.

Prime Minister Thaksin plans to declare Thailand drugs-free on December 2, to mark the birthday of Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej a few days later.

But Pittaya said the victory will really be about a reduction in the level of drug addiction in the kingdom.

"It means we can narrow down the extent of the problem. For instance if you consider the number of people or villages that have the problem, it’s about 80 percent of the villages in Thailand — more than 80,000 villages," he says.

"But we have set a target to narrow down this number to 40 or 50 percent."

Moderate Thai Muslims shocked at arrest of Hambali in their midst

AYUTTHAYA, Thailand – Thai Muslims in this ancient former capital expressed shock Friday at the arrest of terror chief Hambali in their midst, and said they were not interested in his radical form of Islam.

The historic city in Thailand’s central region is home to some 50,000 Muslims, one of the biggest communities in the country outside the five Muslim-majority provinces which border Malaysia in the south.

The imam of one of the 58 mosques in the province, Manoon Miiphonlakij, said the stunning capture of Hambali, a top member of the regional terror network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), did not reflect militancy in the local community.

"Muslims here are all Thai people and we have lived here for a long time," he said at his home on the scenic Chao Phraya river before Friday prayers. "Most people are just getting on with their lives and are busy working."

"They are not like the southern Muslims who are more strict than us — they watch the news a lot and are the ones who are doing things, taking action. Here they are more passive."

Manoon said he was sure that Asia’s most wanted man had not prayed with the rest of the community here during his time on the run.

"We would know. Every Friday we have people who are new but they are Thai," he said, adding that foreigners visit only rarely.

A community elder Samaan Puttan, said that militants should not expect a warm welcome here.

"Terrorists would get no support from Muslims here because they have to follow the law and the king the same as other Thai people. No Muslim should support terrorism," he said.

Piti Chaitharii, another worshipper at the mosque, voiced dismay at the news that Thailand had been tainted with the brush of international terrorism.

"I heard about it from the press and was a little shocked. If Hambali was really here other people are probably here," he said, adding that he was worried about the effects on the community.

There was anger however at the United States, which is widely perceived to be arrogant and aggressive even among Thailand’s moderate Muslims, who make up five percent of the population.

"We are just following our religion. Now I admit we have radical Islam, but they have been pushed by powerful countries to become radical," said Samaan.

Another worshipper, university lecturer Sanit Thipthada, was one of many to say that they doubted Hambali was guilty of planning terrorist attacks including last October’s Bali bombing which left 202 people dead.

"If we think deeply about it, Muslims are not terrorists… The real terrorists are America because Americans only focus on attacking Muslims," he said.

"I do not believe Hambali is a terrorist," he said. "I do not believe he is a bad man because he is fighting for good things in the world."

A Muslim rebellion plagued Thailand’s southern provinces for decades, but in recent years as conditions improved there the movement has crumbled to the point where it is now considered incapable of mounting major attacks.

Thailand played down the terror threat in the kingdom until recently, but in May it was forced to change its tune when Cambodian authorities smashed a radical Islamic network and charged two Thais with membership of JI.

On June 10 police arrested three Thai Muslims accused of belonging to JI over a bomb plot against embassies and tourist spots in the kingdom timed for the APEC meet. A fourth suspect subsequently turned himself in to police.

Thailand admitted last December that Hambali, al-Qaeda’s point man in the region, entered the kingdom briefly at an undisclosed date and that authorities had missed him by less than one day.

Then last month a senior national security official said Hambali was believed to be hiding in Bangkok where he had planned last year’s Bali attacks.

Thailand’s new opium hall casts light on dark history

CHIANG SAEN, Thailand – Nestled in the heart of Southeast Asia’s infamous Golden Triangle region, a gleaming new museum portraying the chequered global history of opium is about to open its doors to the public.

The 400-million baht (9.5-million dollar) Hall of Opium, built amid mountains that a decade or two ago were covered with the intense red blush of opium poppies, will take visitors through the 5,000 year-old story of opium when it launches in October.

"Drugs are a global issue; it’s not about the Golden Triangle," says Disnadda Diskul, secretary-general of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation which established the museum.

A 130-metre underground tunnel leading to the hall, softly lit and emblazoned with sculpted scenes of souls tortured through the abuse of opium and its derivative heroin, gives visitors a taste of the journey to follow.

Using a variety of state-of-the-art multimedia, visitors are taken back to opium’s first appearance in ancient Sumerian texts, to the British-Chinese Opium Wars, the coining of the term Golden Triangle in 1971, and the spread of heroin as the West’s illicit drug of choice.

Walk through a replica of a British clipper ship used to carry opium from India to China, where it was exchanged mostly for tea — to feed another addiction growing in the well-heeled salons of London.

And observe how opium was prepared to be served at the thriving opium dens of the nineteenth century, catering to both rich and poor, and take a whiff of the rich scent of the drug.

"It’s edu-tainment," says Disnadda. "Why edu-taiment? Because education alone is boring, but if you put in the entertainment and you can absorb it with education, that is best for the kids."

Snippets of information are divulged along the way: heroin was believed by its creators to not be addictive; opium was legal in Thailand only for the ethnic Chinese; the global trade in illegal drugs was worth an estimated 400 billion dollars in 2000.

Matter-of-fact presentations allow visitors to judge for themselves how the rituals and romanticism associated with opium-smoking could have led to addiction.

The beautiful opium-smoking accoutrements on display, including pipes, pipe bowls, weights and pillows, show opium-smoking was seen a refined and tasteful practice — at least at the outset.

Other exhibits show the desperation associated with drugs, such as the ingenious methods traffickers have employed to move their cargo: soaking T-shirts in a heroin solution and drying before transporting, or mixing heroin with clay to form innocent-looking Buddhist amulets.

The positive side of the poppy crop is also highlighted — in medicines and poppy-seed-sprinkled bagels, while tales of stars who have fallen victim to drug abuse are retold, such as that of River Phoenix who famously collapsed after a lethal night on heroin, cocaine, valium and alcohol.

The long-gone world of illicit opium dens and antique paraphernalia are a world away from the region’s latest drug problem: methamphetamines pumped out by the million in jungle laboratories along the rugged Thai-Myanmar border.

That drug is not covered in detail, but the museum screens a moving video of Asian children affected by these and other substances such as solvents.

Disnadda sees the museum as the fulfillment of a wish by Thailand’s revered late Princess Mother — the mother of reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej — to whom he was private secretary for nearly 20 years.

During a visit to the region he commented once that it was a pity the tourists traipsing to the Golden Triangle for a glimpse of its mythic past did not learn anything.

"We are branded, condemned, for being the producers of narcotics… And I said to her isn’t it a pity that people learn nothing here? So she asked me could it be done, that people could learn something about the Golden Triangle?"

The royal-sponsored Mae Fah Luang Foundation took on the task, employing two researchers who have been digging into opium’s past now for nine years.

"What we are aiming at is educating the 99 percent of people who are not involved in this business," Disnadda says.

"Don’t judge, but learn from the past, this is what we’re trying to put across. Don’t let it happen anywhere else in the world again."

Thai designers ditch copies and kitsch for substance and style

When it comes to design, Thailand is probably best known as the world capital for pirated goods. But a new breed of homeware designers has ditched copies and kitsch to take international markets by storm with their stylish, useful products.

"Thailand is a real design hub at the moment, and if you go out around the region it’s not as groovy as Thailand," says Carole Stevens, director of Asian Motifs, a design house producing modern Asian-inspired homeware.

"You used to be stuck for buying things here that didn’t have an elephant on it or wasn’t rattan. And now there are just great things to buy, beautiful things."

Eric Booth, marketing director for Thai silk house Jim Thompson, says homegrown designers are more innovative than ever before.

"Ten to fifteen years ago, the designs here were imported. Thai designers were copying foreign designers — there was no local talent, no local inspiration," he says.

"But in the last five years, I’ve travelled to all the international fairs, and now there are some very, very talented Thai designers."

Utilising Thailand’s natural resources, they are turning out sleek candleholders and silver-tipped chopsticks in hardwood, stunning silk cushions and table runners, as well as ultra-modern furniture among countless other items.

For small-scale production, designers can utilise Thailand’s highly-skilled artisans, Booth says.

"The manual worker is excellent — that’s why we copy things so well," he says, referring to Thailand’s famed counterfeiters who routinely knock off designer handbags the day they debut on Parisian runways.

The increasing appeal of Thai homewares is reflected in rising export figures, with gifts and decorative items earning the country’s coffers 3.7 billion dollars last year, a rise of 76 percent on 1998.

Over the same period, exports of household textiles rose by 31 percent, earning 149.5 million dollars last year.

The designers’ success represents a silver lining to the cloud of the devastating 1997 Asian economic crisis which forces many businesses to change tack.

"Many people I know turned to home decorating instead of interior design (during the crisis). It had a big impact of things," says Masiri Tamsakul, a designer working for retailer Muang Doo, which took the downturn head-on by opening in 1997.

"During the last four years, so many interior designers and architects have lost their jobs," says architect Duangrit Bunnag, who went another route and began importing homeware to satisfy a niche demand for international products.

"They have tried to find alternative ways of using their expertise as designers."

A key driver in the boom has been the twice-yearly Bangkok International Gift Fair, which draws buyers from around the world to browse everything from turquoise celadon vases and coconut wood lamps to water hyacinth chairs and Thai-silk cushions.

"Some trade fairs don’t work because the buyers don’t come, but this fair has been getting bigger and bigger each year," says Duangrit.

More than 700 Thai companies exhibited this year with 15,000 potential buyers booking orders worth 1.7 billion baht (40.5 million dollars), says Department of Export Promotion trade officer Praneen Suangarom.

"Most of the (buying) companies who talked to me said… the quality is good, but the uniqueness is in the design," he says.

A focus on both design and quality is vital now that China has emerged as a tough price competitor, exporters say.

"China is a very strong competitor. What we see from big customers who need big quantities is that they come here, collect samples and go to China," says Carlo Hostettler, managing director of Cocoon, an upscale retailer and exporter of contemporary Thai-style homewares.

With China impossible to beat on a price basis, some are concerned that the government is still pushing Thailand’s virtue of being a cost-effective producer, rather than an innovative one.

"They’re going in the wrong direction," says architect Duangrit. "Nobody can produce anything cheaper than China."

And while designers are cutting-edge and manual workers are top notch, growth in the market is being held back by a lack of quality-conscious manufacturers.

"There are few manufacturers who can work for us — it’s hard to produce a large quantity at the same or consistent quality," says Muang Doo’s Masiri. "We have to QC (quality control) the products so much."

Jim Thompson’s Booth says the famed company has faced the same problem.

"Every time we’ve tried to outsource something, the prototype was nice. But when we ordered 10, 20 or a 100 they came out in different shapes, different sizes, different qualities, different colours."

Chet R-nont, chairman of the Thai Housewares Trade Association, says there are quality manufacturers in Thailand, and he hopes they’ll connect with designers through the 65-member association.

"If you come to the association, then we can direct you to the right (manufacturer). All of our members are screened for quality and reliability," he says.

The association was founded last year to focus on accessing overseas markets for manufacturers, and signals a maturity in the industry, he says.