The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia


In the Yao village of Pa Dua, not far from the KMT headquarters at Mae Salong, there is a crude opium den in one corner of the village's general store. At almost any time during the day, three or four Yao tribesmen and KMT soldiers can be found there, flopped on the platfor
m sucking away at their opium pipes Occasionally as they drift off into an opium dream one of them fixes a quizzical gaze at the fading emblem of the United States Navy Scabees, a combat engineering unit, which is tacked to the wall. And the caricatured bumblebee-with a sailor's caperched on its head and a submachine gun clutched in its gloved fistslooks down on the dreamers with the frenetic glare of an aggrieved icon. This emblem and a rotting cluster of buildings a few miles down the road are the only tangible remains of a Seabee construction team that recently spent a year in this area building a road linking Mae Salong with the major provincial highway. According to local Thai officials, the Seabees' construction work was done under the auspices of USAID's Accelerated Rural Development program (ARD). Despite its neutralsounding title, ARD is a counterinsurgency program designed to give the Thai army's cumbersome U.S.-style armored and infantry units easy access to rugged mountain areas in times of insurgency.

While this road has not been much help to the Thai army so far, it has been a boon to the KMT's involvement in the international narcotics traffic. Before the KMT caravans leave for Burma, arms, mules, and supplies are shipped up this road. And after they return, opium, morphine base, and no. 4 heroin come down the road on their way to the international drug markets. The road has reduced the KNIT's transportation costs, increased its profit margin, and improved its competitive position in the international heroin trade. At the time the road was built, the KMT's role in the narcotics traffic was well known, but apparently USAID officials felt that the road's military advantages outweighed its positive contribution to the international drug traffic.

In many ways, this road is a typical example of the most innocent form of American complicity in Southeast Asia's narcotics traffic. After pouring billions of dollars into Southeast Asia for over twenty years, the United States has acquired enormous power in the region. And it has used this power to create new nations where none existed, handpick prime ministers, topple governments, and crush revolutions. But U.S. officials in Southeast Asia have always tended to consider the opium traffic a quaint local custom and have generally turned a blind eye to official involvement. A Laotian or Vietnamese general who so much as whispers the word "neutralism" is likely to find himself on the next plane out of the country, but one who tells the international press about his role in the opium trade does not even merit a raised eyebrow. However, American involvement has gone far beyond coincidental complicity; embassies have covered up involvement by client governments, CIA contract airlines have carried opium, and individual CIA agents have winked at the opium traffic.

As an indirect consequence of American involvement in the Golden Triangle region, opium production has steadily increased, no. 4 heroin production is flourishing, and the area's poppy fields have become linked to markets in Europe and the United States. Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle already grows 70 percent of the world's illicit opium and is capable of supplying the United States with unlimited quantities of heroin for generations to come.