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."