The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

The Royal Thai Opium Monopoly Chinese immigrants arriving in Bangkok during the early nineteenth century found unparalleled employment opportunities as merchants, artisans, and craftsmen. They soon dominated Thailand's expanding commerce and became a majority in her major cities. In 1821 one Western observer calculated that there were 440,000 Chinese in Thailand; as early as 1880 other observers stated that more than half of Bangkok's population was Chinese. (24)

And with the Chinese came the opium problem. In 1811 King Rama 11 promulgated Thailand's first formal ban on the sale and consumption of opium. In 1839 another Thai king reiterated the prohibition and ordered the death penalty for major traffickers. But despite the good intentions of royal courts, legislative efforts were doomed to failure. Although Chinese distributors could be arrested and punished, the British merchant captains who smuggled the illicit narcotic were virtually immune to prosecution. Whenever a British captain was arrested, ominous rumblings issued from the British Embassy, and the captain was soon freed to smuggle in another cargo. Finally, in 1852 King Mongkut (played by Yul Brynner in The King and 1) bowed to British pressures and established a royal opium franchise that was leased to a wealthy Chinese merchant. (25)

In 1855 King Mongkut yielded to further British pressure and signed a commercial treaty with the British Empire in which he lowered import duties to 3 percent and abolished the royal trading monopolies, the fiscal basis of the royal administration. To replace these lost revenues, the King expanded the four Chinese-managed vice franchises-opium, lottery, gambling, and alcohol-which provided between 40 and 50 percent of all government revenues in the latter half of the nineteenth century. (26) In 1907 the government eliminated the Chinese middleman and assumed direct responsibility for the management of the opium trade. Royal administration did not impede progress, however; an alltime high of 147 tons of opium was imported from India in 1913; (27) the number of dens and retail shops jumped from twelve hundred in 1880 to three thousand in 1917;28 the number of opium addicts reached two hundred thousand by 1929 (29) and the opium profits continued to provide between 15 and 20 percent of all government tax revenues. (30) Responding to mounting international opposition to legalized opium trafficking, the Thai government reduced the volume of the opium monopoly's business in the 1920s. By 1930 almost 2,000 shops and dens were closed, but the remaining 837 were still handling 89,000 customers a day. (31) The monopoly continued to reduce its services, so that by 1938 it only imported thirty-two tons of opium and generated 8 percent of government revenues. (32)

Unfortunately, these rather halfhearted measures had a minimal impact on the addict population, and did little more than give the smugglers more business and make their work more profitable. Because the royal monopoly had always sold only expensive Indian and Middle Eastern opium, cheaper opium had been smuggled overland from southern China since the mid nineteenth century. There was so much smuggling that the royal monopoly's prices throughout the country were determined by the availability of smuggled opium. The further an addict got from the northern frontier, the more he had to pay for his opium. (33)

Despite the ready market for illicit opium, there was surprisingly little poppy cultivation in Thailand until the late 1940s. Although large numbers of Meo and Yao. started moving into Indochina from southern China during the mid 1800s, it was not until shortly after World War II that substantial numbers of these highland opium farmers started crossing into Thailand from Laos. (34) Other opium-growing tribes-such as Akha, Lisu, and Lahu-took a more direct route, moving slowly southward through northern Burma before crossing into Thailand. Again, substantial numbers did not arrive until after World War 11, although small advance contingents began arriving in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since the tribal population was small and their production so sporadic, their minuscule harvests rarely got much farther than the local trading towns at the base of the mountain ranges. For example, in Ban Wat, a small trading town south of Chiangmai, hill traders still recall that the opium business was so small in the prewar period that all of their opium was sold directly to Thai and Chinese addicts in the immediate area. Although they were close to Chiangmai, which was a major shipping point for forwarding illicit Chinese opium to Bangkok, the local production rarely ever got beyond neighboring towns and villages. (35) Nor was it possible for the lowland Thai peasants to cultivate the opium poppy. The Yunnan variety of the opium poppy that is grown in southern China And Southeast Asia only prospers in a cool temperate climate. And in these tropical latitudes, it must be grown in mountains above three thousand feet in elevation, where the air is cool enough for the sensitive poppy. Since the Thai peasants cling resolutely to the steamy lowland valleys where they cultivate paddy rice, opium production in Thailand, as in the rest of Southeast Asia, has become the work of mountain tribesmen.

Although Thailand was cut off from its major opium suppliers, Iran and Turkey, during World War II, it had no difficulty securing an adequate supply of raw opium for the royal monopoly. Through its military alliance with the Japanese Empire, Thailand occupied the Shan States in northeastern Burma and gained access to its opium-growing regions along the Chinese border. Moreover, the war in no way reduced Yunnan's exports to Southeast Asia. Both the Japanese army and the Nationalist Chinese government actively encouraged the opium traffic during the war. Even though they were at war with each other, the Nationalist Chinese government (which controlled the opium-growing provinces of southern China) sold enormous quantities of raw opium to the Japanese army (which occupied Burma and the coastal regions. (36) In addition, smuggler's caravans continued to filter across the border from Yunnan, providing substantial quantities of inexpensiveopium for Thai addicts. Thus, Thailand emerged from World War II with her enormous addict population intact and her dependence on imported opium undiminished. (37)