Shallow graves in Thailand's drug warehouse

MAHA RAT, Thailand: on a merry-go-round of drug taking, dealing and jail, Somphal Boonsanoon's journey through addiction ended in a shallow grave in Ayutthaya, Thailand's historic heart, and Southeast Asia's meth warehouse.

His curse from his teens was 'yaba', the small methamphetamine pills cut with caffeine that Thais call crazy medicine.

The tablets are flooding the kingdom at record rates, along with a high purity and more addictive crystal version called 'ice', as drug lords in neighbouring Myanmar churn out huge amounts into the region.

But while the producers and pushers get rich, Thai communities are withering under an addiction crisis.

Somphal was just 39 when he was shot dead alongside two other addicts after stealing 2,000 pills from a pair of local dealers.

Their bodies were dumped on a muddy canal bank, left to bloat in the Aug sun – a putrid feast for the monitor lizards that patrol the paddy fields of central Thailand.

All five men involved used yaba or ice. All came from in and around Maha Rat, a farming district in Ayutthaya province.

"He was a decent person, he wasn't brutal," one of Somphal's relatives told AFP, requesting anonymity fearing reprisals from the drug gangs that riddle the area.

"But he had a weak point ... drugs. He just couldn't stop."

An hour outside Bangkok's sprawl, Ayutthaya is the "crossroads" of the regional drug trade that cascades Myanmar-made narcotics across Southeast Asia and beyond, according to Police Major-General Wuttipong Petchgumneard of Thailand's Narcotics Suppression Bureau.

The central province connects the northern and southern drug routes by road, while its warren of factories – and workers – provide ready stash houses and couriers for the drug gangs.

"Most drugs going to Bangkok or overseas are stored there for pick up by the dealers," he said.

Nearly every night vehicles packed tight with parcels of gear hustle from the north through Ayutthaya hoping to avoid police roadblocks.

Sometimes the law gets lucky.

More often the drug convoys slip through.

"These are international crime organisations, they have money, they have manpower, weapons, and technology ... so we have to constantly evolve to catch them," added Wuttipong.

'Drug playground'

In the year to Sept 18, Thai drug cops seized 199 million yaba pills, worth around US$1.2 billion, (RM5.07 billion) on the local market, double the 2016 figure.

Operations also swept up nearly five tonnes of ice – a fourfold increase on 2013.

On Monday officers seized a record US$30 million worth of crystal meth from a courier trying to move the drugs from the northeast to central Thailand – the south-bound pipeline that pivots through Ayutthaya.

But a glut of precursor chemicals is driving a supply surge from the drug labs of the 'Golden Triangle' – a lawless border zone shared by Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

Thai police estimate between 500 million and one billion yaba tablets and up to 50 tonnes of ice will be produced this year, most of it in Myanmar's Shan State.

Stamped with the 'WY' hallmark of the Wa drug lords of Myanmar, yaba goes for between US$4-US$8 a pill in Thailand.

Ice, a cash cow at around US$60-80/g, is destined for Thai users but also smuggled onto Malaysia and other overseas markets where its price rises.

This month Australian authorities seized nearly four tonnes of liquid ephedrine – enough precursor chemicals to make US$2.8 billion of pure ice – hidden in a shipment of green tea bottles from Thailand.

Around 350kg of ice from Thailand was also recently uncovered in Australia, which has the world's highest per capita consumption of crystal meth.

With more people getting high, Myanmar's border drug labs are working overtime to meet demand.

The country's border zones are "a playground of drug production," Myanmar Police Colonel Zaw Lin Tun, told reporters recently.

'40-50% addicted'

Critics warn the war on drugs has long been lost in Thailand, leaving jails stuffed with small-time addicts as the men at the apex of the trade get away.

Addiction and crime are gnawing away at once tight, kin-based communities in Maha Rat.

"Local people know who is taking drugs and who is selling them, but it's dangerous to talk about it," Somphal's relative added.

A health official, also too afraid to be named, told AFP that 40%-50% of Maha Rat's small population is addicted to drugs.

Successive Thai governments have opted for the 'get tough' approach to consumption in a bid to choke off the supply.

That has resulted in the tenth highest incarceration rate in the world, according to International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

But it has failed to stem addiction rates or dent production.

Proposals for community-based rehab programmes instead of jail for minor drug offenders have evaporated, leaving the kingdom confronting an old scourge with the same weapons.

"Demand (for drugs) is through the roof, but there's no real rehabilitation provision," says Jeremy Douglas of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

"Drug policy is stuck on repeat." — AFP