The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

Tempest in a Teapot: 
The Thieu-Khiem Squabble

When the enormous political dividends of the Fraud Repression Division were added to Khiem's other sources of power, such as the police and the Saigon port authority, the result was all the strength necessary to form an independent political faction. Prime Minister Khiem's reemergence as something of a political power in his own right seems to have created tensions inside the Thieu organization and produced some heated political infighting.

As relations between the Thieu and Khiem factions soured, the smuggling issue became just another club to use against the competition. As one frank U.S. Embassy official in Saigon put it, "Our role essentially ends up allowing one faction to use U.S. pressure to force the other faction out of business. And," he added rather glumly, "the way these guys jump on each other so gleefully makes it look like they are really eager to cut themselves in on . . . an enormously lucrative traffic." (187)

When the Air Vietnam stewardess was arrested with 9.6 kilos of heroin, it was Prime Minister Khiem's office that issued an official statement confirming rumors that a pro-Thieu representative was involved. (188) Furthermore, reliable lower house sources claim that the aggressiveness shown by Chief Khoi's Fraud Repression Division in investigating the case was politically motivated. President Thieu later retaliated. According to one Saigon press report, members of Prime Minister Khiem's cabinet "protested . . . President Thieu's remark that the smuggling involved many high ranking officials who smuggled through the Tan Son Nhut Airport where one of the Prime Minister's brothers was in control." (189) Despite the cabinet's protest, the director-general of customs was dismissed, and in late June Tran Thien Khoi left for a short vacation in Paris. On his return several weeks later, he was transferred to a less lucrative post in the Cholon Customs House. (190) His opium-smoking assistant was likewise transferred, and wound up in the Customs Library, a traditional dumping ground for those in disgrace. (191)

Three months later, the director-general of the National Police, one of Mrs. Khiem's relatives, resigned under pressure. The Saigon press reported that the director-general had been involved in the heroin traffic and was being dismissed as a part of the antinarcotics campaign. Prophetically, one Saigon daily had earlier reported that President Thieu was "taking advantage of the antinarcotics smuggling drive" to force officials out of office and to replace them with his own supporters. (192)Interestingly enough, the new police director-general is Col. Nguyen Khac Binh, a nephew of Mrs. Thieu. (193)

Despite all this political agitation over the narcotics traffic, heroin smuggling continues unabated. U.S. customs advisers have pointed out that commercial air flights have been only one of several routes used to bring narcotics into South Vietnam. Now that airport security has tightened up, smugglers have simply diverted narcotics shipment to other routes, particularly military air bases and coastal and river shipping. (194) Throughout 1971 unlimited quantities of heroin were readily available near every U.S. installation in Vietnam, and there was no appreciable rise in price.