Nearly 200 kilograms of what is believed to be pure, northern Burmese heroin has been found in sacks in northern Thailand, with the haul said to be worth some $US32.6 million.
While no confirmation has been given on the origin of the drugs, regional narcotics expert Bertil Lintner told DVB that pictures in Thai press showed “exactly the kind of 700 gram bricks that they have produced for years”, referring to the United Wa State Army (UWSA), once the world’s leading producer of heroin.
The UWSA controls swathes of territory in Burma’s northeastern Shan state, a key region in the so-called Golden Triangle between Thailand, Laos and Burma, which since the early 20th century has been a major source of the global heroin market.
Lintner also suggests that narcotics from northern Burma are regularly smuggled south along the Mekong river for distribution into Thailand.
Raids by police following the discovery in Phrae province netted 12 men and five cars. The Bangkok Post said the 12 were part of a known smuggling syndicate. It also quoted an anonymous source from the Office of Narcotics Control Board (OPNCB), who said that “[Thai] state officials are suspected of being involved in the trafficking”.
The ONCB’s Region 5 director, Pornthep Eamprapai, supported Lintner’s claims in an interview with the Bangkok Post two days after the seizure, saying that the drug ring was linked to a trafficking network run by the Wa.
The scale of the haul and the suggestion of official complicity hint at the continued nexus between Thai authorities and Burmese narcotics producers, an enduring business relationship that was brought to notoriety under Police Chief Phao Siyanon, who was allegedly responsible for the distribution of northern Burmese opium in the 1950’s.
The haul was made on Thursday last week after a resident of Ban Wang Thong village in Phrae’s Muang district became suspicious about the presence of young men and a “caravan” of cars in the neighbourhood, and reported it to the police.
Burma has been one of the largest producers of heroin and its precursor, opium, for much of the late 20th century, only losing the ignominious top spot to Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
The Thailand-based Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), which publishes a monthly Shan drug Watch newsletter, was however keen to distance the UWSA from the haul.
The agency alleges that the 12 captured men were of Hmong origin and therefore represent a different underworld affiliation, concluding that, given the geographic location of Phrae, the haul must have come from Laos.
Lintner claims however that that is “exactly what the Wa are doing”, referring to the smuggling of drugs along the Mekong, possibly through Laos.
But strict Chinese controls that ban opium production would prevent such large exports, the SHAN claimed, an issue that is compounded by the difficulty in getting precursor chemicals needed for the manufacture of heroin into the Wa Special Administrative Zone.
Lintner further notes however that the trade in narcotics is heavily politicised, with the central Burmese government only implicating the Wa or other such groups in the industry when they are politically out of favour.