CHIANG RAI, 11 April 2011 (IRIN) - The young man sits on the railing of the long tail boat, explaining how he smuggles amphetamines into Thailand from Myanmar.
"When I transport 'Ya Ba' [crazy drug], I come down this way," says the ex-Wa army soldier, pointing across the River Kok on the Thai-Myanmar border, as the wooden vessel glides by a Thai checkpoint on the shoreline.
A sprawling border region, largely controlled by ethnic armies within Myanmar and corruption within the Thai security forces, has aided a thriving narcotics trade along the 1,800km border.
In 2009, seizures of pills in Myanmar and the countries immediately bordering Shan State tripled from the previous year, a trend that has continued in 2010, a recent report [ www.unodc.org/documents/eastasiaandpacific/2010/12/ops-myanmar-ats/Myanmar_ATS_Report_2010_lowres.pdf ] by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) states.
Between January and September 2010, more than 44 million pills were seized in Thailand alone, while over 22 million pills were confiscated in Lao PDR, it added.
Most amphetamines are produced in small, mobile labs near Myanmar's borders with China and Thailand, primarily in territories controlled by active or former ethnic insurgent groups, many of which now operate as criminal syndicates rather than politically motivated insurgents, according to the 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy (INCS) report [ http://www.state.gov/p/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2011/index.htm ] released in March.
"Burma's drug enforcement authorities have not suppressed drug production and trafficking from the ceasefire enclaves of certain ethnic minorities, primarily the region controlled by the United Wa State Army [UWSA]," it stated.
But while the UWSA is considered a prime player in the drug trade, there is also a surge in production - of both amphetamine tablets and heroin - by militia groups aligned with Myanmar's military-led government.
This is attributed to the army's reliance on taxation of opium, and its policy to allow proxy militia groups to deal in drugs in exchange for policing resistance activity, maintains Shan expert Kuen Sai.
Despite promises by the UWSA to eradicate poppy fields in its Northern Myanmar region, the policy has led to a rise in opium production in other areas of the country, he said.
"As the drug trade goes, it has a balloon effect. When it was suppressed in the Wa area it went to other areas. The production began to build up in other areas of Shan state," explains Kuen Sai.
"But not all of the drugs are produced by the Wa," he adds. "Along the Thai-Burma border there are many areas not under control of the Wa. They are mostly under the control of the Burma army and militia groups. These militia groups are the main competitors for the Wa right now."
Drug eradication has been a constant challenge for Region 4 Special Forces Colonel Peeranate Ketthem, who overseas the northern borders of Thailand.
"The drug organizations have set up the factories in the ethnic groups' community, where they can control production.
"For example, in northern Shan state they've built up factories in four or five places and also built a factory in the area between Ko Kang ethnic group and Wa state."
The colonel estimates that less than 30 percent of the total amount of drugs being smuggled in is actually intercepted by Thai forces.
Indeed, the vast stretches of land between the two borders provide ample room for crossing undetected.
On the Kok River, the former Wa soldier tells of the smuggling he once undertook just to survive.
Often going without proper food and supplies, the former soldier would get just over US$300 for each delivery down the river. The parcels, containing 10,000-20,000 tablets, were usually wrapped in watertight packets.
"The people who would order me to do the deliveries were usually army commanders. We couldn't really refuse."
And with no signs of the conflict easing up, most observers expect the drug problem to continue.
According to the INCS report, in 2010, Myanmar was categorized by US President Barack Obama as one of three countries to have "failed demonstrably" to meet its international counter-narcotics obligations and all indications suggest the country's production of amphetamine type stimulants continuess to rise.
Myanmar, Venezuela and Bolivia are among 20 countries - including Afghanistan, Colombia and Mexico - that have been identified as "major illicit drug producing and/or drug transit countries", according to the report sent to the US Congress.