War, Drugs, and Politics in the Golden Triangle

Psychological Warfare Along the Thai-Burmese Border

Drugs Burma
A Burmese soldier holds a gun in one hand, and an opium poppy from a field in the Golden Triangle in the other (Photo: AFP).

Where Thailand, Myanmar (the former Burma), and Laos meet in the infamous Golden Triangle, rebel groups mix drug trafficking and politics in a volatile brew that has provoked warnings from Washington and strident exchanges between officials in Yangon and Bangkok.

The latest unilateral closing by Burma of three checkpoints on its border with Thailand on May 22 as a protest to the Thai government is the most serious one, although there have been a series of such incidents for years. It came as a surprise weeks after a supposedly cordial meeting at the end of April between Gen. Maung Aye, Burma’s army commander and deputy chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyut, Thai minister of defense, in Bangkok.

On May 22, Khin Maung Win, Burma’s deputy foreign minister,
summoned the Thai ambassador in Rangoon [Yangon] to protest Thailand’s alleged support for the Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA), which is fighting for an independent homeland [in Burma’s Shan State]. The point of contention is that in their attempts to curb drug trafficking along the border, the Thai troops had fired into Burma’s territory, attacking the United Wa State Army (UWSA) troops fighting against SURA. [The United Wa State Army, involved in drug trafficking in Thailand, is allied with Burma’s ruling junta.—WPR]

Thailand, Win said, had sheltered and fed the SURA, which has long battled the Rangoon troops. Win argued that the attacks by the UWSA soon after were clear evidence that Thailand supports SURA.

The Thai army, meanwhile, insisted it fired only “warning shots” after stray shells from fighting inside Burma landed on Thai soil. Since more than a division of Thai troops was eventually moved to the border for military exercises, this must have been taken by Burma as a preparation for “conventional warfare,” despite Thailand’s denial that it was conducting a normal routine exercise that had nothing to do with the border tensions.

The fighting could have been linked to the recent U.S. congressional testimony by Rand Beers [assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement], after his visit to Burma in March, [when he stated] that [Washington] views UWSA as a terrorist organization with links to narcotics trafficking. This was considered sufficient to be used by the United States as a pretext to launch an attack against the UWSA if need be.

In a prompt response to the U.S. congressional hearings, Lt. Gen. Khin Kyunt, first secretary of SPDC, and the Burmese junta leaders held an urgent meeting with the five leading drug traffickers at Lashio in Shan State on March 22. Khin Kyunt gave an ultimatum to the drug dealers that they must immediately stop all narcotics activities or they will face the wrath of possible raids on them.

Like it or not, Aye’s visit to Thailand at the end of April was construed as a green light by the Thai army to raid the UWSA. The Third Army thus moved a troop division to the border earlier than the normal schedule. Along with the new reinforcements, the Thai army conducted an underground operation with SURA special forces.

What were the reasons for the speedy Thai exercise along the Burmese border? According to deputy commander of the Thai Third Army Maj. Gen. Pichanmek Muongmanee, it was linked to U.S. drug policy and international politics.

Indeed, the whole scheme of things has been rather obscure, which was part of the Thai government’s game plan. One wonders about the long-term benefits for Thailand resulting from this game plan.