- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

BAN PANG LAO, Thailand — This rice-farming village in the hills of northern Thailand was being destroyed by drugs.

Children stole from family rice stores to buy methamphetamine — the preferred drug of most Thai addicts — and outsiders drove into town all night long to buy the little orange pills from the few dozen villagers who had taken up drug dealing full-time.

Then, backed by angry residents and relatives, village elders threatened the drug dealers and users with a terrifying fate for a Thai: If they died, no one would attend their funerals and no monk would say prayers for their souls.

The dealers and users soon went clean, and no one suffered ostracism.

“The thing villagers fear most is dying and not having anyone help with their cremation,” said Sumalee Wanarat, a former teacher who now works with Ban Pang Lao’s antidrug program.

Thai Buddhists believe the soul will be consigned to hell if funeral rites are not performed properly. A well-attended funeral — usually an elaborate affair of relatives and musicians — is one of the main requirements of a proper cremation.

“We set up village rules and told them that if they were involved with drugs, we would cut them off from the community completely,” Mr. Sumalee said.

The last of the 53 known drug dealers in the village of 1,500 people gave up the trade within months. Addicts were weaned from the habit.

“We have to depend on ourselves because we suffer the consequences, not the outsiders,” Mr. Sumalee said.

Ban Pang Lao’s success is being held up as a model for Thais to come up with indigenous — and perhaps ingenious — ways to combat the country’s drug epidemic. Government officials brought foreign journalists to the village to show off its achievement.

Previously, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration had focused on a bloody campaign to wipe out drug dealers, giving police wide latitude to arrest suspects and freedom to shoot those who resisted.

Thailand’s drug problem can be traced to neighboring Burma, where drug lords, dominated by the United Wa State Army, operate openly in border areas. Granted virtual autonomy in a peace deal with the military regime in Rangoon, the Wa produce millions of methamphetamine pills in factories close to the Thai border. The drugs are smuggled by jungle trails into Thailand.

Last year, Thai police seized a record 95.4 million methamphetamine tablets, according to the Office of the Narcotics Control Bureau. The Public Health Ministry estimates 3 million of Thailand’s 63 million people regularly abuse drugs.

In big cities — including the capital, Bangkok, 420 miles south of Ban Pang Lao — drug dealers blend in with street urchins and vendors. But in villages, there are no secrets.

“We could point to each house where the dealers and addicts lived,” Mr. Sumalee said.

Rice farmer Supat Vintavud was the first person to bring methamphetamine, known in Thailand as “ya ba” or “crazy drug,” to the village in 1997.

Mr. Supat, 35, said the hill tribesmen he worked with on odd jobs introduced him to “ya ba” to give him the strength and endurance to drag large sacks full of ginger.

“But I kept needing more, and if I didn’t take it, I was weak, tired and grumpy,” said Mr. Supat, who works now as a community antidrug worker.

For four years, he sold and used drugs. He could sell 200 pills a day and earn 10,000 baht (U.S.$250), a hefty sum in an area where most farmers make 4,000 baht to 8,000 baht a month.

Others soon took up the trade, and drug use spread in the village, fueling petty theft to pay for the pills. Young users took from their family rice stocks, and objects disappeared from the village temple and school, Mr. Sumalee said.

The community woke up to the seriousness of its problem after two villagers were slain by rival dealers from another province and a 10-year-old was found using and delivering “ya ba” to buyers.

Turning the dealers in to police would have solved nothing, Mr. Sumalee said, because they would be set free after paying bribes and would mock the elders.

“I was arrested as I was about to give up dealing,” said Narong Supanyo, a farmer who went from weighing 216 pounds to 140 pounds because of his addiction. “I had just sold my last two pills, when 10 or so police drove up the road.”

He said that if he had paid a 3,000 baht bribe, the officers would have let him go immediately, but he had only 2,000 baht. Mr. Narong said he spent 48 days in jail and still had to pay police 6,500 baht to be freed.

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