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Burma-Thailand Relations Strained Over Drug Traffic - 2003-08-22

Diplomatic ties between Burma and Thailand have been strained after Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra reportedly threatened to attack illegal drug factories inside Burma. Burma has retorted that such threats are "not conducive to existing friendly relations."

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's threat to attack narcotics factories operating just across Thailand's border with Burma were quoted by the Thai news media. The reports followed a deadly border clash between Thai soldiers and Burmese drug smugglers earlier in the week.

In that firefight, nine drug smugglers linked to Burma's Wa tribe were killed by Thai border patrol troops. The operation led to the recovery of half a million amphetamine tablets destined for Thailand.

Mr. Thaksin was reported to be angry over the continuous flood of amphetamines into Thailand, and because repeated calls to the Rangoon government to close down the trafficking have been ignored.

The Burmese responded to the reported threat by summoning the Thai charge d'affaires to the foreign ministry, where Rangoon's displeasure was made clear.

Burma's state-controlled newspaper, New Light of Myanmar, wrote that Mr. Thaksin's comments were not conducive to existing friendly relations.

Thai Police Colonel Preeraphan Prempooti, secretary-general of the Thai Anti-Money Laundering Office, says the border patrol has been ordered to close the border to smugglers.

"We have ordered the police - the border patrol police, the soldiers - to make sure they seal off the borderline not to let them [the Wa] smuggle the drugs in because there is a large amount of drugs smuggled into the country," he said.

Thailand is one of the world's largest per-capita consumers of methamphetamines, with up to five percent of the country's 63 million people estimated to be users of the drug.

The Thai Army has forecast that a record one billion pills would be smuggled in from Burma this year, up from an estimated 700 million in 2002.

Earlier this year, Mr. Thaksin launched a "war on drugs" in Thailand, which drew heavy criticism from human rights groups when up to 3,000 alleged drug smugglers and dealers were killed, either by police or in gangland murders.

Thursday, in a diplomatic letter to Burmese military intelligence, Thailand formally demanded that Rangoon do more to halt the activities of the Wa, who operate in northeastern Burma.

Amphetamines and heroin from Burma have been a long-standing irritant in Thailand. Burma remains the world's second-largest producer of opium behind Afghanistan, despite reported efforts by Rangoon to reduce Burmese production.