The Reagan administration has succeeded in persuading the Thai government to launch its toughest campaign yet against the growing of the opium poppy. The United States is helping to pay for the suppression drive, which is timed to begin next month the new crop of poppies will be about one foot high. The Thai government says it aims to eradicate the poppy within 10 years.
President Reagan recently wrote on the Thai prime minister, Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, urging him to do more to curtail production and trading of opium from which heroin is refined.
The US government has long felt that Thailand has been too slow to curb the opium growers who in the main are nomadic hilltribe farmers supplementing their income from other crops with revenues from opium. US narcotics officers say that eradication of the opium crop is the first requirement in any serious fight against narcotics.
They point out that Thailand could do much more to control the opium crop than it does.
American and other foreign diplomats have been appalled on visits to the opium-growing areas to observe cultivation and harvesting going on without interruption from the police. That state of affairs has certainly inhibited foreign governments' contributions to Thailand's war on narcotics.
More than one ambassador has told Thai ministers: "In these circumstances how can I recommend that my government put in more money?"
Up to now the Thai government has relied largely on persuasion to reduce the opium crop. For nearly 10 years experts have been demonstrating to hilltribe farmers, who know only how to grow the poppy, that coffee, kidney beans, and certain fruits and vegetables will also grow profitably on their mountains.
Although the crop substitution program is relatively small, it has neverthless contributed to a 50 percent cut in Thailand's opium pruduction in the past decade.
The Thai government has also been concerned that indiscriminate destruction of poppy fields would drive impoverished hilltribe people (who already suffer because they are ethnically and culturally different from other Thais) into the ranks of communist insurgents.
Under American pressure the Thai authorities are now promising to begin destroying the new crop in October or November.
For the first time destruction will be on a large scale although at the outside it will be limited to 10 village areas in the Chiang Mai province.
Previous threats of this kind have never materialized but this time villagers have already been warned of the government's intentions. One more warning will be given before teams move in to cut down the crop.
There are two reasons behind the Thai government's new eradication campaign: This year's opium crop is huge, and the US has promised more money to help with the war on drugs.
The US contribution in 1981 totals $7 million. It also maintains a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) staff of 39 who have had significant roles in numerous narcotics seizures and arrests.
Opium production this year in the "golden triangle," adjoining border areas of Thailand, Burma, and Laos, amounted to about 600 tons -- the largest for seven years and enough to make 60 tons of heroin.
Some of that heroin is already being smuggled into the US, Europe, and Australia.
Much of it was refined in the 12 or more laboratories in the "golden triangle" controlled by the most-wanted drug kingpin in Southeast Asia, Khun Sa, a Burmese warlord described by American narcotics agents as "Enemy No. 1." He has a private army of 4,000 and has been tolerated by Thailand in the past because of his strong anticommunist image.
Thailand has just increased its reward for Khun Sa from a derisory $2,000 to
Thai aircraft are dropping leaflets announcing the reward over the "golden triangle" but nobody in authority sees it as a serious threat to Khun Sa, who for years has moved at will in the border regions.