By LAWI WENG
If Thailand wants to solve its drug problem, it will have to address the political situation in neighboring Burma first, according to a spokesperson for the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), one of a handful of ethnic insurgent groups still fighting the Burmese army.
“There is no way they can solve the illegal drug problem in Thailand as long as Burma’s political problems remain unsolved,” said SSA-S deputy spokesperson Sai Sheng Murng, speaking to The Irrawaddy on Thursday.
“If there is a political solution in Burma, the drug problem in Shan State will be easy to solve,” he added.
The SSA-S is a remnant of a militia run by Khun Sa, a drug lord who surrendered to the Burmese regime in 1996. The group continues to fight the junta’s army in southern Shan State, near the border with Thailand.
The Burmese regime often accuses of the SSA-S of involvement in the illegal drug trade, but the group rejects the charges, countering that the Burmese military is itself deeply involved in the narcotics business.
Sai Sheng Murng also pointed to poverty as a major reason for Shan State’s continuing drug problem.
“Opium crops only need a short time to grow and they can quickly generate income” for impoverished farmers, he said. “If the world wants people to stop growing poppy, they must provide them with an alternative through crop substitution programs.”
According to an annual survey released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in February, poppy growing and opium production in Shan State have increased over the past two years due to political instability in Burma and growing economic insecurity caused by the global recession.
The recent increase in poppy cultivation follows a decade of decline. In 2008, there were about 30,000 hectares under cultivation, compared with more than 120,000 hectares a decade earlier. Opium production fell from more than 1,300 tonnes to around 410 during the same period.
The current increase has alarmed Thailand, which has long faced an uphill battle against drug trafficking. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva announced plans to kick off a new campaign against illegal drugs, set to start on April 1.
Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya recently traveled to Burma, where he failed to win any concessions from the Burmese government on the United Wa State Army, an armed ethnic group that has a ceasefire agreement with the regime. The group is regarded as the biggest player in Burma’s illicit drugs business.
Meanwhile, Thai authorities arrested three former member of Khun Sa’s disbanded private army last week, seizing assets valued at more than 117 million baht (US $3.3 million).