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Editorial: 'Speed' In Thailand
Yangon must get serious about stopping the flow of amphetamines

Waging war against drugs is like squeezing a balloon. Just as one lump disappears, another bulges up. Just when Thailand was ready to declare victory against heroin, another scourge arose. In the past three years millions of amphetamines -- yaba or "crazy drug" to Thais -- have flooded into the country from factories just across the border in Myanmar. "Speed" is rapidly wreaking havoc among the country's youth. By some accounts, as many as 1 million Thais use the drug.

Most of this new-old narcotic -- Germany first synthesized it in World War II -- is produced in Myanmar's section of the infamous Golden Triangle, then smuggled through the long, forested border. The principal producer is believed to be the United Wa State Army, which made peace with Yangon to cement control of most of this corner of Myanmar. Whole towns have sprung up along the border within sight of Thailand's army and authorities. They say that these are the towns that yaba built.

The flood of speed has the Thais upset, for good reason. For decades, the country was mostly a transshipment zone for heroin to Europe and America. But the amphetamine traffic stays in Thailand, hooking low- and middle-income youth. The problem is becoming acute in Bangkok, where youngsters and other customers are openly offered tablets even on the city's spanking new mass-transit Skytrain. Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai recently ordered the army to help contain the drug flow, which is now its main official mission, rather than fighting communists.

The Thais are also fuming at Myanmar. Over the years, Bangkok has been in the forefront of international efforts to engage what most of the rest of the world considers a pariah state. It ended its support of rebel ethnic groups across the border, and it supported Myanmar's membership in ASEAN in 1997. But Thailand's patience is wearing thin. A recent meeting of its top generals and the National Security Council was full of criticism about what they called Yangon's lack of sincerity and uncooperative attitude towards drug interdiction and other border issues, such as repatriating refugees.

While lauded for mounting anti-drug efforts with little foreign aid, Myanmar needs to do more. Despite big public displays showing the burning of poppy crops, the junta isn't likely to get good press without equally resolute efforts on other narcotics. That means putting pressure on the Wa. When Lt.-Gen. Khin Nyunt, Secretary-1 of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, visited the main Wa base at Mong Yawn, he should have done more than skirting the issue. Instead of demanding an end to the drug trade, the general said nothing and just smiled at his hosts. That was a slap in the Thais' face.

Myanmar is on bad enough terms with most of the world -- even the Chinese are getting irritated about speed and opium -- without alienating its closest neighbor needlessly. Its leaders must send a message to the Wa that they should find other ways of making money than ruining lives with drugs. On the other hand, the outside world might also wonder whether Yangon has any incentive to do much about drugs when it will continue to be isolated and deprived of needed funds and business despite taking action. It's a tough, complex issue. Clearly the problem of narcotics is just one aspect of the world's strained relationship with the junta.

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