See all the ICE Cases
Deploy the ICE Search and Sort Tool (SST)
Go To ICE Expert Site

ICE  Case Studies
December 2001

Amphetamine Trade Between Burma and Thailand

May Aung


1. Abstract

The Golden Triangle, a region between the borders of Burma, Laos and Thaialnd, is a famous region in the world for its opium production. Alarm bells are now ringing over the rapid rise of amphetamine trade originated from the Burmese part of the Triangle. Amphetamine, a speed pill, is an illicit drug known as crazy medicine or Ya Ba among Thai drug users. In the latest report of United Nations International Drug Control Program, amphetamine is dubbed as "Drug of the 21st Century." In old days, only night shift workers and truck drivers used amphetamine as a source of energy in Thailand. Nowadays, it has become a popular drug of choice among younger generations. Amphetamine trade is the number one threat to the national security in many countries; among others, Burma's front-line state, Thailand, suffers the most because of substantial use of Ya Ba among Thai youth. Ya Ba trade have created conflict between Thailand and Burma on one hand, and Thailand and some of Burma's insurgent groups on the other. Since last two hundred years ago, the wars between Burma and Thailand were frequent. The invasion of Burmese troops to occupy Siam (Thailand) last two hundred years ago was the root of the on-going animosity between the two countries. The history has been significantly shadowed on the relationship between the two countries in many ways including policy considerations on the current conflicts. On the other hand, Thailand and Burma are also the members of Association of Southeast Asia Nations; this conflict over amphetamine trade between two member states begins to affect the regional stability. In the mean time, Burma's economy has declined after the effects of Asian financial crisis and the regime's own policy mistakes. Then drug trade becomes a major source of income for the weakening economy and of course to the Burmese regime.

2. Description

During 17th and 18th century, Burma invaded and fought Thailand to integrate into the Burmese kingdom. Chaing Mai, the northern capital, and Aryudaya, the old capital of Siam were fallen under Burmese kings for sometimes. The brutalities of Burmese kings remain a source of national pain for the Thais. During the colonial period, Burma fell under British colony for hundred years while Thailand was spared from any colonizers. As a result, Burma lagged much behind Thailand in post-colonial period. This historical twist made Burmese leadership envious towards affluent Thailand.

Following the independence, Burma quickly fell into a bloody civil war and militarization. When socialist-leaning Burmese army staged a coup in 1962, some Burmese civilian politicians took refuge in Thailand. Because of their relatively closer relations with the West, Thailand supported the Burmese exiles. That policy created thorny relations between the Thailand and Burma for many years in late sixties and early seventies. However, the relationship was improved in late eighties when Thai Prime Minister Chatichai proposed the initiative that Thailand would help the neighbors and turn the battlefields into markets. This policy was practically followed by then the Thai defense Chief General Chavalit Youngchaiyudth who visited Burma in late 1988 and struck multi-million worth of business deals between the two countries.

While the Burmese army regained the country during the last decade the Thai army was also getting powerful within its country. Some of the two countries' military personnel got very close personal relationships. However, Thailand becomes more open and democratic during the last five years under a civilian Prime Minister. It was this time, Burma's many ethnic insurgents groups, including United Wa State Army (UWSA), made cease-fires with the Burmese military government. One of the by-products of these cease-fires was immunity over many illicit activities including drug businesses run by these insurgents.

In that context, UWSA has become the largest producer of Ya Ba production and trafficking into Thailand. UWSA was not new in the business, as it has been involved in drug trafficking since eighties during which drug income was a major source of finance for armed resistance against the Burmese military. Nowadays, it has given up arms to Burmese military government and chosen to make money by engaging in a wide range of shadowy trades including Ya Ba trafficking. Since amphetamine production is more profitable and needs only a small amount of initial investment and operating space, its production has rapidly incresed along the Thai-Burma border area. Quite ironically, the UWSA imports necessary chemicals such as pure caffeine crystals to produce amphetamines from Thailand. One kilogram of pure caffeine is worth only Baht. 3,000, however, it could be used to make up to 20,000 methamphetamine tablets taking a higher street value from Baht 200,000 to 500,000.

The impact of the drug menace was devastating for Thailand. According to Thai Development Research Institute in Chaing Mai, Thailand has at least 257,000 amphetamine addicts. The flow of amphetamine from Burma to Thailand in this year is doubled to 700 to 800 million pills. UWSA exports the pills to some part of Europe, Australia and other Southeast Asian countries too. Since most amphetamine addicts are students, as young as nine years old, their education is greatly affected within a short period of time. A country's long-term development is inevitably affected. Amphetamine addicts are physically weak possibly with brain damage and cannot act like normal person for a while. Socially, most addicts feel isolated. Besides, addicts problems, there are huge corruption of civil servants, military, immigration and police officers because of their help for easy flow of amphetamine into Thailand. The crime rate is increasing related to amphetamine trade.

Thai government already emphasized amphetamine problem as its number one national security priority. Since the beginning of this year, Thai authorities put full efforts to address the drug problem. In particular, US trained Thai Special Task Force was formed to suppress drug groups along the border area. It also sought assistance from another insurgent ethnic group of Burma, Shan State Army. The arrangement was part of the US creation of an International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA)to enhance the effectiveness of regional measures against the principal transational crime threats in Southeast Asia. On the other side of the border, Burmese military units helped UWSA to defend Thai Task Force's actions. Northeastern part of Burma along the border with Thailand area has been becoming conflict zone. Old animosities between the two countries were resurfaced, when Burma's state-owned newspaper made a derogatory analysis on Thai past while Thai newspapers responding with a very harsh criticism agains the Burmese regime. The problem seems to have posed a larger potential for armed conflict between the two countries than a mere drug enforcement issue.

Despite of rising tensions between the two countries, ASEAN's role is very limited in mediating the conflicts between its two member countries. ASEAN's way of dispute settlement is traditionally ad-hoc and event-oriented; however, drug problem between the two countries is rather chronic and structural. ASEAN policies for addressing drug problems are not very effective at the moment. Thailand has to approach extra-regional power, China, which is not a member of ASEAN to involve in the coalition of Golden Triangle countries (Burma, Thailand, Laos) to fight against drug problem. China's policies towards suppressing drug problem including death sentences are very strong and harsh to be replicated in a more democratic state like Thailand.

On the multilateral front, UNDCP (United Nations Drug Control Program) has been engaging in the eradication of more conventional drug type, opium-based heroin. They have a limited role in fighting against amphetamines trade, since their development programs such as crop-substitution and farmers' assistance projects do not work in the case of Ya Ba production, because this type of industry takes less land and fewer farmers involved in the production. Even in the case of opium eradication schemes, the program was not able to help the poppy-growing farmers effectively to plant substitute crops such as corn or sugar. With the rapid decline of opium production in Afganistan, Burma is now surging again as primary producer of opiates in the world. Anyhow, the existing international drug assistance programs have yet to devise effective interventional strategies to address amphetamine problems. The busiess-as-usual approach will not solve the problem.

3. Duration

1990 to present

4. Location

Continent: Asia

Region: South East Asia

Country : Burma (Myanmar)

5. Actors

5a. Burma

United Wa State Army: Key producer and trafficker of Amphetamine trade in Southeast Asia. UWSA is the largest ethnic-based army in Burma, although Wa population is smaller than other ethnic groups in the country. Having entered into ceasefire agreement with the Burmese junta, UWSA managed to run the largest drug syndicate in Southeast Asia, notorious for its involvement in opium cultivation, heroin production and recently, ATS trade. The UWSA used to finance its well-armed, 15,000-men troops with drug income. With ceasefire agreements in place, the UWSA leaders seemed to have invested a large percentage of drug income into local economies and even larger investments at the national level.

Shan State Army: Shan State Army was led by Col. Yord Serk, a vetran guerilla leader who does not see eye to eye with UWSA regarding its policies toward the Burmese military regime and ceasefire agreements. SSA retains its armed resistance against the Burmese army, however, it refrains from engaging in drug trade. Instead, SSA receives some covert assistance from neighboring governments to fight against UWSA in curbing drug flows.

State Peace and Development Council: The Burmese military junta, named itself State Peace and Development Council, implemented a policy of ceasefire agreements with decades-long enemies of the state from Burma's remote border regions. The agreement obligates the junta to turn blind eye to increased drug activities linked to some ceasefire groups; many army units are rumored to have directly or indirectly involved in drug business. The army's strongman and intelligence chief General Khin Nyunt is Burma's drug czar.

National League for Democracy: The election-winning opposition party and its chirasmatic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, denounced drug trade and proposed drug eradication program. The NLD has recently held a secret talks with the junta. Malaysian prime minister, Dr. Mahathir is behind the talks, while his special adivisor and top UN diplomat, Mr. Razali Ismail has been playing a key role in international mediations. Drug problems is believed to be a central issue in the talks.

5b. Thailand

Royal Thai Army: Reform-minded army officers led by Army chief bitterly criticized Burmese army for its failure to stem rising drug problems along Thai-Burma.

Taksin Administration: The newly elected Taksin administration faces a dilemma of avoiding open conflicts with the Burmese regime, while maintaining freindly business ties. Newly elected Prime Minister Taksin seemed to have preferred decisive measures against rising influx of Ya Ba into Thai society. On the other hand, other prominent leaders like General Chavalit played controversially, as he maintains several business venture in Burma and has close ties with Burmese generals.

II. Environment Aspects

Amphetamine trade between Thailand and Burma significantly affects traditional patterns of life style in the northern Thai villages. Northern parts of Thailand are great tourist attractions for green forests, traditional hill tribe communities and tropical animals such as elephants and other rare birds. Such an exotic and innocent beauty of the region was more or less destroyed by the amphetamine trade recently. Thai authorities have recently identified several villages on the borders of Golden Triangle that connects Thailand, Burma or Laos as storage centers for amphetamine traffickers. The drugs are kept in these villages until orders are made for shipping. In the official statistics, 157 border villages are designated as stopovers, storage areas, trading areas, or meeting areas for illicit drug industry. Among these, 100 villages are located in Thailand, 40 are in Burma and 15 are in Laos.

The following stories confirm the impact of amphetamine trade on social and cultural environments of Northern Thailand. Ban Don Khoi is a village located between Maung and Kamphaeng district in northern Thailand. The villagers grow rice and raise pigs and chickens; their pace of life used to be easy going. However, Ban Don Khoi has suddenly changed when it began to have road transport in 1997 and the village began to have visitors everyday, mostly truck drivers. The reason for a sudden influx of visitors is the fact that the village is now a point of distribution for speed pills in southern Thailand.

Since the village is increasingly dependent on amphetamine trade, local youth population is being affected by the growing trade. The average education level of youth in this village is about 6th grade. Their chances of getting decent jobs are not much. Most of them follow their parents' ways of lifestyle. With the introduction of amphetamine, many youths between the age of 18 and 20 in this small village became drug addicts.

In a similar trend, 10 villages in Maung, Pop Pra, Mae Sot, Mae Ramat and Tha Song Yong district of northern Thailand are also hugely involved in amphetamine trade. The hill tribe people from those villages who are involved in the trade have become organized gang members. They are taking amphetamines from northern provinces and delivering to customers in other provinces. They have raised their own fund, estimated to be about 17 million baht (approximately 380,000 million dollars) to assist the families of jailed traffickers and to bribe the local officials including police.

Traffickers are using a variety of ways to distribute amphetamine. These methods include the use of animals. For instance, they stuff pills in cows' bottoms and cattle laden with amphetamine wrapped in plastic are being sold at inclusive prices in some northern provinces. Pills sealed in plastic bags are shoved into cows' intestines and retrieved in a reversal of the process. Extensive use of such methods inevitably affects the local livelihood in the long run. Although immediate ecological impact of this business practice is not significant, the long-term impact of indiscriminate use of animals can undermine the local ecological system as well as traditional way of farming and food production.

On the side of Burma, where large-scale production takes place, the similar impact of drug trade can be seen. For most rural population that has lived on simple means, amphetamine business tremendously transformed their lives. In almost all border villages on the side of Burma, small labs are usual mode of production than large factories. However, the capacity of these small labs is rather impressive: two men in a jungle hut can make 10,000 pills a day. The profit margin is truly frightening: a small lab can product pills for about 10 cents each, and sell them for 50 cents at the Thai border. This whole lucrative trade and efficient system production affect rural lives dramatically. Moreover, there are some effects from the excessive use of chemicals for drug production and improper dumping of waste materials that contain toxic chemicals

6. Type of Environmental Problem
pollution and soil degradation

Excessive amount of chemical is used to produce the final product illicit drugs. Dumping the chemical wastes into ground affects environment in all these countries. Some waste products increase water pH and reduce Oxygen availability. Since the production of these illicit drugs do not follow any proper waste management, indiscriminate use of chemicals surely affects ecological balances. This has already happened along the Thai Burma border at the locations of Wa ethnic mobile amphetamine laboratories.

7. Type of Habitat

8. Act and Harm Sites:
Burma and Thailand

III. Conflict Aspects

9. Type of Conflict:

10. Level of Conflict: Medium
inter-state, as well as, intra-state and domestic

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)
Some fatalities of innocent local villagers, and army units in conflict. The recent clashes between Shan State Army and the Burmese troops take the toll of dozens of casualties on both sides. A few Thai oldiers and border patrol units died in collateral clashes with either Burmese army or UWSA troops.

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

Causal Diagram


13. Level of Strategic Interest
Regional as well as international.

US DOS/DEA interest in heroin reduction and eradication has also drawn the US government into its joint-program with the Thai goverment. However, although the US military assistance to Thai drug enforcement units are not comparable to what the US has involved in Colombia, it has created suspicion within the region. It prompted China to take a more active role in ATS eradication scheme, as US military presence in the Golden Triangle poses certain threat to China's outer security parameter. Therefore, amphetamine drug trade has wider implications on the regional security and great power rivalry.

14. Outcome of Dispute
In Progress

15. Related ICE and TED Cases

The case about "Amphetamine (Ya Ba) trade between Thailand and Burma " is a rising trend in the international narcotic control. Although the case is still a local problem, it is rapidly evolving into a regional one that links to the larger global trend. As UN International Narcotic Control Program has considered Amphetamine as "drug of choice for the 21st century," this case study is very interlinked with similar problems in other parts of the world.

Socio-economic effects

In terms of socio-economic effects, illegal money generated by the illicit drug trades has become the main source of external income for all the countries under the case studies. Total illegal money was as high as $7 billion in Colombia. The same is true for Bolivia. These conditions are very similar to share of amphetamine trade in Burma's economy. Illegal money makes the economies stronger, and consequently, the governments particularly some individual officials benefit from it. In terms of trade direction, there are some differences. Cocaine from Bolivia goes to many destinations. In the case of Colombia, importing countries are United States, Western Europe and Japan. In the case of Burma, the major destination of Yaba is her immediate neighbor, Thailand. In terms of production of illicit drugs, most raw materials and chemicals required for the production come from outside the countries. The irony is that these chemical imports come from the countries where the actual consumption takes place. In the case of Bolivia and Colombia, chemicals come from the United States. In Burma, the producers import all essential chemicals from Thailand which is also their targeted market

V. Related Information and Sources

16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Related Websites