Thailand Criminal Activity and the Narcotics Trade
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
The crime rate appeared to have risen throughout the 1970s and early 1980s--perhaps an inevitable by-product of a society changing under the pressures of population increases and economic and social modernization. The TNPD reports revealed increases in murder, assault, theft, armed robbery, smuggling, and petty violations. The major share of these criminal activities occurred in Bangkok and some of the larger towns in outlying areas. The high incidence of theft by youthful gangs also caused the police considerable concern.
In general, organized crime appeared to be rare, except for the illicit trade in opium, heroin, and cannabis, which persisted in spite of ever-increasing government efforts during the 1970s and 1980s to cope with a problem that had not only serious domestic implications but also escalating international repercussions. The drug trade had originated with the growing of poppies as a traditional primary cash crop by hill tribes in the Thai section of the notorious Golden Triangle--a mountainous border region including parts of Burma and Laos. For many years peasant cultivators in this region produced a major share of the world's opium.
According to estimates by the Thai government and international drug-control agencies, the average crop year yielded from 500 to 1,000 tons of opium, which, when processed in clandestine laboratories, produced from 50 to 100 tons of heroin. An estimated one-half of each annual crop found its way into the world market, destined primarily for addicts in Western Europe and the United States. The other half supplied users in Thailand, Malaysia, and other Asian countries. ln the late 1980s, it was believed that Thailand alone had roughly 500,000 addicts who depended on illicit supplies of opium and heroin. For years the Thai government maintained that there were relatively few opium users among the cultivators. But a medical survey, conducted in 1976-77 by health researchers from Chulalongkorn University, indicated that the rate of addiction in 6 sample villages varied from 6.6 to 16.8 percent of all inhabitants over the age of 10. This survey and subsequent studies convinced the Thai leadership that trafficking in illegal narcotics had become a domestic problem requiring action, rather than a low-priority international problem.
The opium-heroin trade of the 1980s stemmed from a history of international political machinations in the countries of and around the Golden Triangle--a maze compounded in more recent times by increasing profitability. The hill tribes grew the opium. Insurgents and separatists in Burma transported it. Yunnan Chinese living in northern Thailand taxed it, and Chaozhou Chinese (overseas Chinese living in Bangkok and Hong Kong) bought and exported it. Any clear understanding of the complicated system requires careful study of the region's ethnic and political hierarchy.
The Chinese appeared to have been heavily involved in the opium trade, but that was mainly before the advent of Mao Zedong. The Yunnan Chinese who traded in opium were a hodgepodge of private armies, including representatives of the Guomindang (Kuomintang--KMT) forces that fled China at the time of the communist takeover in the late 1940s. The rebel Chinese bands in the Golden Triangle were the remnants of the KMT who were unable to escape to Taiwan but instead sought refuge in Burma. Over the intervening years their fanatical anticommunist attitude kept them active in southern China as well as in Burma, Laos, and northern Thailand. For many years their fierce independence and swashbuckling military courage was regarded by many Western governments as helpful in stemming communism in Southeast Asia. That attitude, however, predated the international heroin problem and the rapprochement between the West and China.
The Chaozhou Chinese (originally from Chaozhou District, Guangdong Province) traced their roots in drug trafficking back to the days of organized crime in Shanghai after China's defeat in the Opium War (1839-42). Operating their maze of syndicates from Hong Kong, the Chaozhou Chinese had a virtual monopoly on the illicit opium and heroin trade, and the technology they used in converting opium to more easily transportable heroin was handed on to Chinese living in Thailand. The syndicates' intricate system of international couriers operated within Thailand to transport drugs both to local dealers and to the vast array of worldwide customers.
Faced with increasing use of illicit drugs among young people in the United States in the 1960s and a rising incidence of addiction among its servicemen in Vietnam, the United States government focused on the flow of heroin from Thailand. On September 28, 1971, the two governments signed a memorandum of understanding, reaffirming their intention to cooperate with each other in combating the illicit international traffic in dangerous drugs. Under the terms of the accord, the Thai government agreed to step up its efforts to eliminate poppy production and to control narcotics traffic within the country. The United States agreed to provide support, such as training, equipment, advisory assistance, and funds, to improve the effectiveness of the Thai programs. For several years the cooperative efforts of the two governments produced limited results, partly because certain corrupt senior Thai officials in the bureaucracy, the army, and the police had personal interests in the drug trade.
By the 1980s, successive Thai governments had played an increasingly effective role in the suppression and control of illicit drugs originating in Southeast Asia. The agents of the Narcotics Suppression Center, established under the TNPD, were highly regarded by foreign narcotics representatives for their efficiency and incorruptibility. Personnel of the Provincial Police and the BPP received training in narcotics work, and new equipment--including helicopters--had been procured to aid in aerial surveillance. Coordination between the TNPD specialists and Interpol provided the Thai with valuable information and suggestions from the police representatives of countries such as Canada, France, Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United States as well as the metropolitan police of Hong Kong. Many foreign governments, including the United States, assigned professional narcotics specialists to their embassies in Bangkok to work with the Thai government on the illicit drug problem.
Thai citizens, threatened by the problems stemming from drug abuse in their country, strongly supported such measures as preventive education, treatment, and rehabilitation. In addition, tough amendments were added to the Criminal Code to deter those trafficking in narcotics. Legislation passed in March 1979 mandated the death penalty or life imprisonment for persons convicted of possessing, manufacturing, or transporting more than 100 grams of heroin. Despite limited success in the legal and enforcement areas of antinarcotics programs, the Thai government and its foreign advisers believed that the most logical long-term solution lay in persuading the opium-growing hill people to abandon their traditional crop and switch instead to other cash crops, such as coffee, beans, tea, and tobacco. This effort received aid from the United Nations, which started a pilot project along these lines in 1973. The United States provided funds to assist in the development of a highland marketing system for the hill tribes' produce and for a system of roads to provide growers with easier access to lowland consumers.
During the 1980s, as the number of narcotics addicts in Thailand continued to grow, the Thai government renewed its attention to narcotics eradication and interdiction programs. These efforts received strong support from the United States and other countries. Thailand and Burma, always suspicious neighbors, increased cooperation in the effort to eliminate narcotics traffic along their border. The two governments arranged for limited intelligence exchange on narcotics refineries and trade routes along the border and also cooperated in combined tactical missions against the narcotics traffic. Progress in the battle against illicit narcotics was slow, partly because of the vested interests of certain influential figures within Thailand. It was also difficult to combat the problem because of the remote and rugged terrain and the international border. Observers predicted drug traffic would continue for many years to come and might never be completely eradicated.
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Although an abundance of material exists concerning various aspects of national security in Thailand, there are no definitive studies in English that provide the entire picture. Readers interested in further details on the country's insurgency problem may consult former United States Agency for International Development officer Robert F. Zimmerman's succinct 1976 article, "Insurgency in Thailand," and former United States special assistant for counterinsurgency George K. Tanham's informative book Trial in Thailand. Hans U. Luther's extensive article, "Peasants and State in Contemporary Thailand," provides an informative explanation of the insurgency's socioeconomic basis. Thomas Lobe's well-researched and provocative monograph, United States National Security Policy and Aid to the Thailand Police, offers interesting exploration of the myriad problems encountered in counterinsurgency efforts through the mid-1970s. Moreover, a clear picture of the roles and activities of the kingdom's prime internal security force is offered in Thomas Lobe and David Morell's chapter, "Thailand's Border Patrol Police: Paramilitary Political Power," in Supplementary Military Forces, edited by Louis A. Zurcher and Gwyn Harries-Jenkins. An understanding of national security policy is greatly assisted by the chapter on Thailand in Strategies of Survival by Charles E. Morrison and Astri Suhrke. But no analysis of the national security situation, using publicly available sources, would be possible without the extensive coverage provided by the periodical Far Eastern Economic Review. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)
Data as of September 1987
NOTE: The information regarding Thailand on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Thailand Criminal Activity and the Narcotics Trade information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Thailand Criminal Activity and the Narcotics Trade should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.