Thai opium eradication still a model for the world

5Thailand’s successful decades-long efforts to eradicate opium cultivation through a multi-pronged approach that betters the lives of rural people, still serve as a model to other nations confronting similar issues such as Afghanistan, Laos and Myanmar, according to a recent report by Voice of America.

Northernmost Thailand is part of the Golden Triangle, the region where the borders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand converge, and for decades was the largest opium- and heroin-producing region in the world. Opium is the raw material from which heroin is made. Drugs from the Golden Triangle were sold to addicts on the streets of the United States and Europe.

While Myanmar and to some extent Laos remain major opium-producing countries, Thailand has all but eliminated the deadly crop.

Much of the credit for that success can be attributed to the Thai royal family. Beginning in the 1980s, the late Princess Mother Srinagarinda launched the Doi Tung Royal Development Project, which sought to wean hill peoples off growing opium by encouraging them to grow cash crops and launch cottage industries.

“When the Princess Mother first came to this area, there were lots of problems, like people growing opium, there were drug traffickers, they did slash and burn [farming],” Dollaporn Rujiravong, senior communications manager at the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, which oversees the project, told Voice of America (VoA). “But the Princess Mother didn’t see them as criminals. She thought, no one wants to be bad, they just don’t have the opportunity to be good.”

The Doi Tung project, named after a mountain that is home to hill peoples and where the Princess Mother built a palace, began by setting up a drug rehabilitation center and then created jobs that ranged from growing coffee to weaving purses. What started essentially as a charity now turns a healthy profit. Doi Tung coffee has been recognized for its quality both at home and abroad.

Jeremy Douglas, United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, told VoA that stamping out opium creates a vacuum unless a new source of income can replace it. The UNODC, following the example of the Doi Tung project, promotes alternative income sources such as planting cotton and indigo in Afghanistan, or tending goats and selling peanuts in Myanmar.

But he recognizes that part of the reason for Doi Tung’s success was the reverence for the royal family among local people, including hill people. If others had asked them to change their way of life, they would probably have resisted or dismissed the idea. But they trusted Thailand’s royals.

Thailand also benefited from having rule of law: opium-growing areas in Myanmar and Afghanistan are mostly under the control of rebel groups who use the proceeds to buy arms and also enrich themselves.

The Mae Fah Luang Foundation has also sent teams to Myanmar and Afghanistan to share advice and experience on crop substitution and narcotics elimination.

Today, Thailand produces almost no opium, has few opium addicts and a very low number of heroin users. Nonetheless, the country, like many other countries, is still wrestling with drug trafficking and addiction.