Diplomatic pitfalls frustrate Thailand's antidrug fight

Thais sideline a US-trained commando force in their bid to boost ties with Burma.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A special US-trained commando force created to block a flood of illegal drugs into Thailand has been sidelined by a delicate diplomatic two-step between Thailand and Burma (Myanmar), its neighbor and the source of the drugs.

Known as Taskforce 399, the unit was set up last year and trained by US Special Forces troops. It is equipped with surveillance and combat equipment, including Black Hawk helicopters and night-vision goggles.

US officials say Thailand quietly sought their help amid public alarm over the rapid spread of methamphetamine pills, known to Thais as ya ba or crazy medicine. An estimated 5 percent of Thailand's 62 million people are addicted to the speed pills, which cost as little as $1 each and are readily available across the country.

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"When you have methamphetamine showing up in your primary schools, it's time to sit up and take notice," says a US military official. "Nobody wants these drugs pouring over their border."

The US is also getting a taste of this problem: In August, customs officials in California seized 75,000 ya ba pills sent to Sacramento from Thailand and Laos, the largest-ever bust. And heroin continues to flow out of Burma and to the US, via smuggling routes in Thailand and China.

But initial optimism that US trainers and equipment might help turn the tide against traffickers has given way to frustration. Thai Army sources, diplomats, and observers in the rugged, 1250 mile-long border area say that Taskforce 399 has pulled back in recent months as Thailand has sought to repair diplomatic and commercial ties with Burma's military rulers.

Relations between the two countries took a nosedive in May when Thai troops shelled Burmese troops that were battling Shan rebels along the border. Burma promptly closed all land crossings to Thailand, slamming the door to trade.

The border reopened in October after months of talks between the two governments. Few details were offered publicly, but diplomats say Burma wanted firm assurances that Thai troops wouldn't stray across the border - even to track drug couriers.

Burma also said it objected to the presence of "foreign" troops near its border, although US and Thai military officials say that US troops assigned to train Taskforce 399 are advisers and don't join Thai antidrug operations.

"[Burma] is quite nervous; they don't want the US government involved in this kind of stuff ... Thailand is in a delicate situation. Its relationship with Burma may be getting better, but there are still problems on the border and they may be losing the war on drugs," says Aung Zaw, a Burmese exile and magazine editor.

At the heart is a dilemma for countries trying to stem the outflow of drugs from Burma: How to cooperate with a government with only nominal control over its territory. Much of the ya ba and heroin trafficked across the border is traced to ethnic insurgents such as the United Wa State Army that signed cease-fires with the junta.

Drug-control experts say Burma has made strides recently in combating opium, the raw ingredient in heroin, by promoting alternative crops for farmers, a strategy that Thailand has used successfully to curb its opium trade. Last year Burma's heroin production fell to 950 tons, a 14-year low, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency.

But those favoring cooperation with Burma say there's no sign of a crackdown on ya ba labs. "Opium fields are easy to detect, but methamphetamine factories are hidden from sight and can't be easily found, and they're located in areas that the Burmese government doesn't control," says Yngve Danling, an adviser to the UN Drug Control Program.

Critics see Burma's inaction as deliberate, and accuse its generals of profiting from the trade, a charge denied by the regime.

Whatever the reason, the drugs keep arriving. This week, the Thai Army warned that the UWSA was developing new routes to traffic up to 1 billion pills into Thailand over the next year.

Some Army officers bemoan their chances of success without "hot pursuit" of traffickers who slip across the border, which is porous and poorly demarcated. "We can cooperate with Burma with our [antidrug] intelligence but they don't have enough troops to do the job," complains a Thai general.

Taskforce 399 was supposed to strike back at the drug lords. Using $2 million from the US Defense Department's counternarcotics budget, it was designed as a lethal, rapid-response unit ready to swoop in on armed convoys that cross into Thailand at night.

In reality, the taskforce currently has only about 100 men assigned permanently, with another 460 men seconded from Army and border police units. Thai officers say this lack of manpower prevents them from reacting quickly to intelligence tip-offs, since they need approval to mobilize. Some say the handicap is intentional: Officers are under orders to avoid firefights in sensitive areas that could upset Thai diplomacy.

Lt. Gen. Udomchai Ongkasing, commander of the 3rd Army that guards the border, says Taskforce 399 has a "small target" for now, and that cooperation is the way forward.

"We only use Taskforce 399 inside our border. We care that Myanmar isn't happy about 399 operating along the border...[so] if we try to coordinate with the Myanmar junta to help us suppress drugs, this is better," he says.

That policy can work, say observers, only if Burma stamps out UWSA drug labs or Thailand loses its appetite for ya ba. So far, neither looks likely.

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