A Thai soldier was killed yesterday evening after fighting broke out between Thai troops and members of the Burmese armed ethnic group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA).
The six-strong Wa unit was seen carrying bags believed to contain drugs as they crossed from Burma into northern Thailand’s Doi Lang, in Chiang Mai province, Col Somsak Nin-ubon of the Thai army was quoted in the Bangkok Post today.
Much of the shared border region between Thailand and Burma is porous, and drugs are known to flow from Burma’s volatile eastern Shan state into Thailand. The UWSA, Burma’s largest ethnic army which controls territory close to the Thai border, is widely believed to be Burma’s chief producer of methamphetamine and opium.
The Bangkok Post said that shots were fired after the Thai border defence unit ordered the Wa soldiers to stop for a search. The only victim named was Manit Boonthep, although the report said that the Wa “retreated across the border, leaving behind two dead bodies”.
Burma, once the world’s leading heroin producer until it was usurped by Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, has seen production of heroin fall in the past decade as the market for synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine has blossomed.
Experts said earlier this month that the looming elections in Burma, slated for 7 November, could trigger a surge in drugs across Burma’s border as groups such as the UWSA fear a crackdown by the Burmese junta. Thailand has already seen the amount of illicit methamphetamine tablets, or yaba (Thai for ‘crazy medicine’), seized soar this year.
Burmese ethnic armies are known to use the profits made from the drugs trade to fund their operations, and while the Burmese junta’s hand in the country’s narcotics industry remains murky, its souring relations with many ethnic ceasefire groups are heightening fears of renewed fighting.