Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Burma key to war on drugs

Published: 25/03/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is to kick off a new campaign against illegal drugs next week. And there is good reason for the new impetus on the "war on drugs".

In announcing the new campaign, Mr Abhisit cited frightening new evidence that the rate of addiction is rising once again. His figures appear to confirm the general feeling throughout the country that neither drug suppression nor treatment have been adequate. The government must lead the fresh campaign against illicit drugs while keeping in mind that the public will not accept either legal abuses or official violence of the past.

The serious drug problem in today's world has several faces. One of the most important is that the drugs which debase and imperil the country come almost exclusively from outside. Thailand of the past was a drug producer, home to traffickers selling out their country and exporting their illegal products. Today, the country imports virtually all illegal drugs. Chiefly, they come from Burma, where the government appears to do little against one of the world's richest and most prolific trafficking rings. So-called recreational drugs also come from South America and Europe, frequently carried through neighbouring countries along the way.

Mr Abhisit has promised to increase border security as part of the six-month anti-drug programme he will kick off on April 1. Of all the ways to fight drug trafficking, this may be the most difficult and prone to failure. The long and difficult Burmese and Lao borders in particular are virtually impossible to seal. Smugglers detect an effort to guard one portion of border and move to another.

The premier and his anti-drug security forces of the military and police should put more emphasis on gaining information about the drug gangs. Last week, a joint US-Thai operation dealt a significant blow to the narcotics trade when agents arrested some top traffickers and hit them where it really hurts - in their pocketbooks.

Authorities seized more than 117 million baht in cash and goods. The three arrested men, former associates of the late heroin warlord Khun Sa, admitted to having sold 750kg of heroin and methamphetamines in the past year.

The arrested men pinpointed a large drugs laboratory. Close to the Thai border of Tak province, it is reportedly owned by the United Wa State Army, Southeast Asia's biggest and most influential drug cartel. The UWSA thrives in what seems to be the absence of any action against the group by the generals in Burma.

The public backs increased government action against drugs. Weekly surveys by Abac Poll show that drugs have been the top overall concern of viewers of the premier's weekly talk on TV. Mr Abhisit was correct to equate drugs with terrorism and international crime as the chief threats to the country. The prime minister correctly ordered that the war on drugs must adhere to civil and human rights.

Two additional steps are vital to defeat the drug traffickers. The first is to make good on Mr Abhisit's pledge to redirect some anti-drug resources to help addicts and victims. It is as necessary to reduce the demand for drugs as the supply. But the key to reducing supply rests with the military dictators of Burma. Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya was in Burma and agreed to talk about the Burmese concern over the Karen resistance, but without gaining any concessions from the junta on the UWSA. So long as Burma allows drug trafficking to flourish, Thailand and other neighbours will remain at a disadvantage.

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