Bangkok — The densely forested mountain regions of Southeast Asia's infamous "golden triangle" have produced a bumper opium crop. "We are already awash in heroin," says Abraham Azzam of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. In the last three years, Afghan and Iranian heroin has filled the gap left by a severe falloff of Mexican heroin production around mid-1978, the result of drought and other factors.
Now the world is facing a massive increase -- with the "golden triangle" harvest likely to put an extra 15 tons of heroin on the international market.
Last year 38 percent of all heroin in the US came from Southeast Asia, even though the bad harvest reduced the opium crop to only 240 tons. (Ten tons of opium yield one ton of heroin.) For 1981 the estimated total opium production for the three "golden triangle" countries -- Burma, Thailand, and Laos -- is 600 tons, 500 tons of this coming from the war-torn Shan states of Burma.
Despite massive US aid for narcotics suppression to both the Thai and Burmese governments ($7.5 million last year) the prospects of intercepting the deadly cargo before it reaches the addicts of North America and Western Europe are remote.
Today heroin is big business, its organization is as sophisticated as any multinational, and the Chinese syndicates that run this worldwide operation have proved to be more resourceful and ingenious than their predecessors (the Corsicans and those involved in the French connection).
The grim outlook was neatly summed up by Paul J. Bennett, US consul in Chiang Mai, the northern Thai city that is headquarters for many traffickers. He recently described attempts at narcotics suppression as "like emptying the ocean with a teacup."
He frankly admitted to this correspondent that providing Thailand's antinarcotics police with more helicopters, walkie-talkies, and other equipment to track down heroin shipments heading south through Thailand does not solve the problem.
The problem begins on the Burmese side of the border, in areas where the central government exercises little or no control. The opium-growing country of the Shan states has waged an unceasing 20-year struggle for political and cultural freedom from Burmese rule. Many of these ethnic- minority rebels live off opium to support their guerrilla politics, including the Burmese Communist Party.
Despite annual offensives against the opium insurgents by the Burmese Army, netting a few hundred kilos of opium and destroying a few heroin laboratories, the trade is only temporarily disrupted. A leader of the Shan rebels told me, "If the DEA thinks that the Burmese Army is achieving much by smashing a few heroin laboratories, they are deluding themselves." He added, "It looks good on paper, but these laboratories are only made from bamboo, we can rebuild them in less than a week."
The Shan rebels have always insisted that the narcotics flow from the "golden triangle" can be stopped only by tackling the political question -- what they term the human-rights issue within the ethnic mosaic of a multitude of different races forced to live under highly centralized Burmese rule.
If all the non-Burmese minorities are added together, they account for at least 50 percent of the population of Burma. Back in 1977 some US congressmen, led by (former) Rep. Lester Wolff (D) of New York actually did talk to Chan Chi Fu, the narcotics warlord of the Shan United Army (SUA), to consider his offer of preemptive buying of the entire opium crop to take it off the market.
But the State Department fiercely resisted the proposal, saying Washington could not make backdoor deals with rebel armies and meddle in Burmese affairs.
The web of opium politics is not easy to untangle. It dates back to the late 1950s, when Taiwan and the US were continuing the struggle against Communist China by supporting Kuomintang remnants of Chiang Kai-shek's Third and Fifth armies that had fled south in 1949, and established themselves in the Shan states of Burma. They soon turned to the opium trade to finance their anticommunist crudade, while supplying intelligence data to the CIA and organizing spy missions on the mainland.
Today the Kuomintang armies, long since expelled from Burma, are firmly ensconced in Thailand and actively assisting the Thai Army in guarding the northern frontier against any communist advance.
The Kuomintang remnants are permitted to operate two military camps close to the Burmese border, one at Tam Ngop and the other at Mae Salong. All the ethnic rebels maintain that the Kuomintang have never given up the opium trade. However, American narcotics sources claim that the Kuomintang are no longer important in drug-trafficking, and that 70 percent of the heroin harvest is controlled by a Shan- born Chinese, Chan Chi Fu, alias Khun Sa.
In 1978 the Thai prime minister ordered him out of Thailand, but self-proclaimed opium king soon reappeared at his remote hilltop headquarters at Ban Hin Tek just 10 kilometers inside Thailand. Chan Chi Fu controls 7 out of 15 heroin refineries; the DEA does not like to admit the Kuomintang and its partners run the rest.
Despite the Thai Government's many public commitments to eradicate the drug traffic -- much of which still makes its way to Bangkok, Malaysia, and Singapore across Thailand -- doubts remain attached to the apparently untoucheable status of narcotics chieftain Chan Chi Fu.
Chan Chi Fu, like his Koumintang rivals, enjoys considerable patronage from some high-ranking Thai generals who regard him as a necessary anticommunist buffer, deploying traditional Asian statecraft rather than conventional armed force. With the Thai Army already stretched because of the Vietnamese threat on its Cambodian border and troubles on its Malaysian border to the south, narcotics suppression is thought to have taken second place to security.
But if strategy dictates some kind of tacit alliance with opium warlords, in many cases personal greed ensures that it is a rewarding partnership.
Only last month the former narcotics- suppression chief of Chiang Mai, Thai police Col. Nirand Withayavuthikul, was reported missing just after he had been "fingered" by four Thai-Chinese arrested in a massive 58-kilo heroin seizure. According to those in charge of the investigation, Colonel Nirand had been using his position as top police officer and citizen above suspicion to drive huge heroin consignments through police checkpoints en route to Bangkok. For years this police boss had worked hand in hand with DEA agents based in Chiang Mai.
Today he is on the run -- but it appears that the chase is at best lukewarm. The US consul in Chiang Mai commented, "I would not be surprised to read that his body was found floating in the river."
Colonel Nirand is said to know too much about corruction in high places -- the sort of corruption that has allowed half a dozen major traffickers to escape from Thai jails over the last five years.
Although increasing numbers of Westerners are being locked up in Thai jails, mostly they are small-time couriers who have little or no strategic importance to the operations of Chinese syndicates dealing in multimillion dollar shipments often concealed in air freight cargoes and containers.
When it comes to the key people in the syndicates -- the chain encompassing financiers, heroin chemists, police who sometimes deliver the chemicals, top officials who obstruct attempts at interception, and overseas distributors -- very few of the big fish are ever caught. This is why at best only 10 percent of heroin "exports" from Southeast Asia are likely to be intercepted.