US blacklist links Thai MPs to drug trade: Golden Triangle routes exposed

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AT LEAST 17 elected members of the Thai parliament are directly involved in international heroin or marijuana trafficking, according to a secret list drawn up by the United States embassy in Bangkok.

A number of people on the list are now denied US visas, and one man, Thanong Siripreechapong, an MP for the northeastern province of Nakorn Phanon, has been indicted in California on charges of smuggling 49 tons of marijuana to the US over a 14-year period.

A dollars 2m (pounds 1.33m) house in Beverly Hills and a limousine belonging to Mr Thanong have been confiscated by the US authorities. When the indictment was revealed in Bangkok recently, he resigned from his party and lost his seat in parliament. He denies the charges.

The revelations, a serious embarrassment to Thailand internationally, have caused less of a stir at home. Most voters have grown weary of the tales of their politicians' corruption and ill-gotten wealth. It has long been an open secret that MPs and some senior members of the military have been involved in the drug trade.

But the list of suspect MPs indicates a tightening of US resolve to crack down on international drug-trafficking. The list is based on years of intelligence- gathering by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI. The US is also urging Thailand to speed up the drafting of legislation against the laundering of drug money.

The list helps to expose one of the murkier links in the drug trade, which starts in the poppy fields of north-east Burma and ends on the streets of Los Angeles and New York. About 60 per cent of the heroin in the US comes from South-east Asia's notorious Golden Triangle. This area of misty rolling hills, mostly above 3,000ft, provides the ideal climate for growing the opium poppy.

The Golden Triangle is centred on Burma's Shan state, and also includes Laos, Thailand and China's Yunan province. Pictures of the hill tribes in colourful dress scraping opium from poppies have become the standard image in the West for the heroin trade of South-east Asia.

The beauty of the landscape, the quaint lack of guile of the hill tribes and the romantic associations of the centuries-old opium trade seem strangely dislocated from the sordid world of addicts, pushers and drug-related crime in the West. It seems hard to blame the poor farmers for harvesting a crop that even the British encouraged until early this century.

What has been less well-documented, however, is how the harvested opium, usually refined into heroin in secret field laboratories, makes its way out of the isolated valleys to the ships and planes that transport to the West.

The Golden Triangle is entirely landlocked, has few roads and no airports, and many villages are several days' march apart. The answer, as has long been suspected, is that the traffic moves through Thailand's excellent system of roads, airports and seaports across the border. These trafficking routes are safeguarded by rich and powerful men, who can oversee vast networks of corrupt border guards and other officials to ensure that they turn a blind eye at the right time.

When news of the list of 17 MPs with drug-trafficking records reached the Thai press, it started an avalanche of speculation and insinuation about who might be on the list. A second MP, Mongkhol Chongsutanamanee, who represents the northern Thai town of Chiang Rai, close to the Golden Triangle, denied that he had been blacklisted from visiting the US. Two weeks later the US embassy confirmed that he was suspected of involvement in narcotics, and had indeed been denied a US visa.

Mr Mongkhol was a close associate of Narong Wongwan, an MP designated to become Thailand's prime minister in March 1992, until the US embassy revealed that he was suspected of drug-smuggling.

Thailand's legislature has been suspiciously lenient on drug-trafficking, despite intense pressure from the US and other Western governments to bring its laws into line with other countries of the region.

Unlike Malaysia and Singapore, Thailand has no laws against the laundering of drug money. It took 13 years to push through parliament a law permitting confiscation of the assets of drug traffickers.

Although police periodically arrest low-level couriers with some heroin on their persons, the big fish never seem to be named, let alone taken into custody. But if the US list of 17 suspected MPs is even partly correct, the parliament's lax attitude to drug-smuggling is likely to become untenable.