Yaa Baa: Production, Traffic and Consumption of Methamphetamine in Mainland Southeast AsiaNov 3rd, 2011 | By p-a-chouvy | Category: Agriculture, Books / Livres, Burma / Birmanie, China / Chine, Consumption / Consommation, English, Geopolitics / Géopolitique, Laos, Methamphetamine / Méthamphétamine, Production, Thailand / Thaïlande, Traffic / Trafic
Yaa Baa: Production, Traffic, and Consumption of Methamphetamine in Mainland Southeast Asia
Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy & Joël Meissonnier
Preface by Stéphane Dovert
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Part One: Yaa Baa, an Illicit Drug from the Golden Triangle: A Geo-Historical and Geopolitical Study of its Production and Traffic (by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy)
Chapter 1 Methamphetamine
Chapter 2 History of a Product and its Production Techniques
Chapter 3 The Historical and Geographic Context of the Golden Triangle
Chapter 4 Methamphetamine Production and Traffic in Mainland Southeast Asia
Part Two: The Circuits of Yaa Baa, Methamphetamine Circulation and Use in Thailand (by Joël Meissonnier)
Chapter 5 From the Producer to the Consumer
Chapter 6 Methamphetamine Use among Workers and Low-income Groups
Chapter 7 Yaa Baa’s Prime Target – The Youth
Part Three: Sociological Context of the Explosion in Methamphetamine Use in Thailand (by Joël Meissonnier)
Chapter 8 A Difficult Legacy for the Younger Generations
Chapter 9 Youth, Drugs, and Thailand’s Institutional Culture
Chapter 10 Types of Methamphetamine Users: An Attempt to Define Models
In 2000, the Bangkok-based French scientific institution IRASEC (Institut de recherche sur l’Asie du Sud-Est contemporaine – Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia) asked geographer Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy and sociologist Joël Meissonnier to conduct research on the drug yaa baa, Thailand’s most popular amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS). Their common research resulted in a publication two years later entitled Yaa Baa: Production, trafic et consommation de methamphétamine en Asie du Sud-Est continentale. 
At the time of research, both yaa baa consumption rates and the number of users had increased so dramatically in Thailand that a sizeable share of the kingdom’s youth could be said to have been touched by the ATS drug in some way or another. Consumed by those who used it for work as well as for recreation, yaa baa became prominent and highly desirable. Students pressured to succeed academically, fishermen forced by their occupations to spend long nights on deck, teenagers trying to free themselves from the constraints of a strict social framework, and yuppies searching for meaning to their lives–all had begun to enlist the help of this cheap, colourful pill. Some did not even consider yaa baa to be a drug because its side effects were not perceived as harmful. And despite the tendency of wealthy Thais to avoid the consumption patterns and tastes of the poorer classes, this “nearly perfect product” appealed to all levels of Thai society.
Yaa baa in Thai society did not appear out of thin air. In neighbouring Burma, methamphetamine pills came to rival both opium and heroin as the most profitable product in the narcotics trafficking business. The mountainous, minority-controlled border regions between Thailand and Burma have played a significant role in the recent emergence of the ATS trade. Long-established routes running through the Golden Triangle, which for centuries had been a dynamic hub for various kinds of commerce, now served the new opportunities brought forth by the pill trade.
Downstream, numerous wholesalers with military and political links on both sides of the border supplied methamphetamine tablets to a multitude of retailers and dealers. Traffickers concealed their illegal cargo in truck petrol tanks, car chassis, and even inside their underwear. Customs posts were overwhelmed by the flood of pills, and officials were often encouraged to turn a blind eye to the passing traffic.
But at the beginning of 2003, a political earthquake erupted in Thailand, leaving in its wake a new approach to solving what had become an acute, widespread drug problem: the “war against drugs” launched by the Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. During this three-month war, authorities seized forty million methamphetamine tablets and jailed 92,500 drug addicts, 43,000 dealers, and 750 drug producers and importers. Leading drug traffickers arrested included Surasakdi Chantradraprasart, who controlled a large share of the Bangkok market. Some 1,300 civil servants were sacked or placed in custody for their complicity in the illegal drug trade.
These dramatic outcomes of Thailand’s war against drugs have come at a very high social price. At least 2,500 people were killed during the anti-drug campaign, some of them no more than ordinary users. Children were also among the casualties. Nevertheless, the government claimed the operation to have been a “victory beyond expectation.”
Thailand’s drug war “success” seems to have been sustained by another war against drugs–one ostensibly declared on the other side of the border–by the Burmese military regime. Under pressure from the international community, the Burmese junta appears to have targeted the source of its drug supply more directly than its neighbour. Burma’s campaign to eradicate poppy cultivation has come under scrutiny from the United States, the United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse Control (UNFDAC), and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Even China is now putting increasing pressure on its Burmese ally in this regard.
Burmese authorities involved in countering the illicit drug trade have constantly displayed good intentions over the last few years. The “National Plan Against the Drug Menace” was launched by Burma’s Prime Minister General Than Shwe on October 7, 1998. The campaign received a boost in support from Than Shwe’s successor, the seemingly more decisive General Khin Nyunt. In 1996 a joint US-Burma opium yield survey reported an estimated 163,000 hectares of poppy cultivation and a production total of 2,500 tons of opium. By 2003, just seven years later, these figures had dropped sharply to 60,000 hectares of opium poppy cultivation, with a potential production yield of approximately 800 tons. In 2004 it is expected that opium will completely disappear from Burmese fields before the end of the decade. Even the United Wa State Army, which, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), had allegedly assumed control over approximately one third of this lucrative industry, now seems ready to abandon opium in favour of substitute crops.
But the 2005 deadline for eradicating poppy cultivation in the Wa region seems wildly optimistic, even if Pau Yu Chang, Chairman of the United Wa State Army and the most powerful Wa leader, has proposed “to have his head chopped off if his promise is not fulfilled in time.” The crop substitution programs have not yet yielded positive results for the Wa, and this mountain-dwelling population is still desperately lacking in alternatives to opium cultivation. An estimated 300,000 people belonging mostly to ethnic minorities, some of whom live in de facto independence from Rangoon’s authority, remain engaged in poppy cultivation in Burma. Though the eradication process may be harsh, the worthiness of its goal is beyond question.
But what about ATS?
The Burmese government seems less amenable to dealing with this problem. During a seminar held in Rangoon on January 27, 2004 organised by the Myanmar Institute of Strategic and International Studies, police Colonel Hkam Awng, the Joint Secretary of the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control, emphasised the inability of his government to cope with the ATS phenomenon without additional support. Because necessary precursor chemicals such as acetic anhydride and ephedrine are not produced in Burma, responsibility must also lie with India, China and Thailand, where these chemicals are manufactured.
Colonel Hkam Awng’s stance in effect confirmed the extent of the ATS problem. The output of methamphetamine by producers of the United Wa State Army is alleged to have increased dramatically, and is supposed to have made up for financial losses caused by the sharp decline in opium production. New transport routes, mainly at points further south of the Golden Triangle, have already been established to export Burmese-produced ATS. But how can this be, if the region’s primary drug market was supposedly eliminated by the Thai government’s recent anti-drug campaign?
The “war against drugs” has had far-reaching consequences for Thai society, sometimes of unexpected proportions. Hundreds of extra-judicial executions badly affected Thailand’s image in the international arena, and the government’s reputation regarding human rights has been seriously called into question. The ends may justify the means, but drug eradication operations do not always appear to have been carried out for the sake of justice. In many cases, victims’ links to drug trafficking were not sufficiently demonstrated, and it appears that such actions were taken as the result of false denunciations or the settling of old scores.
As a result of the campaign a significant number of families lost their only potential breadwinner, either because the targeted family member was killed or put in jail. Thus, many households are now without an income. Some users, still coping with addiction, now find it harder to obtain their precious pills. Plans to rehabilitate drug users also appear tenuous when confronted with the scope of the drug problem. These developments have left many people worse off than ever and the distress is felt not only in Bangkok, but across the whole country.
In the field of illicit drug studies, some believe that a “war against drugs” simply generates more demand. This rather simplistic view has prompted certain institutions to focus their efforts on producers and on the eradication of what they see as a significant threat to society. But even if one considers such a paradigm valid, it should not be forgotten that methamphetamine presents its own set of challenges to those who seek to eliminate it. While poppy fields can be easily located using satellite images complemented by ground surveillance, and heroin production requires heavy and costly equipment that is neither easily nor discreetly assembled, ATS manufacturing is much more complicated to detect. Creating an ATS production unit is inexpensive to undertake and easy to assemble. Some producers even establish their own ‘factories’ at home. Furthermore, it is simpler still to produce ATS in the Golden Triangle region, where national laws are not strictly enforced. Hence if political solutions and government responses to the methamphetamine boom are sought via a focus on production alone, the problem is likely to remain unsolved.
Why do people use illicit drugs? The question is not a new one. Recently the market price of a yaa baa tablet in Thailand increased dramatically, from around 100 baht (2 euros) at the end of 2002, to approximately 400 baht in 2003. The government’s terror campaign has shaken many ATS suppliers and consumers. Dealers are definitely more cautious, and the price hike may have discouraged those consumers who are less well-off. As violent as the campaign was in Thailand, every war must come to an end, and in the wake of this drug war the Thai government has claimed victory. However, the conditions that previously drove a substantial part of the Thai population to use methamphetamine have not disappeared, just because the drug war has ostensibly ended in victory.
The 1997 financial crisis placed a great deal of social and economic strain on the poorest sectors of Thai society, and the country’s unemployment rate remains high. It is still relatively difficult for individuals lacking training or credentials to find and keep a job. For those people who are employed, and who hold jobs that are physically or mentally demanding, an artificial stimulant can still be welcome. The country’s younger generations are under pressure at school as the exam system is still very selective; they, too, may thrive on the mental boost provided by substances that enhance mental concentration and endurance.
Thai society has also experienced tremendous social changes over the past 25 years. Many people have migrated from the countryside to seek jobs in urban areas, and the traditional family structure has changed accordingly. Extended family members that once took care of the younger children are now often geographically separated, and the nuclear family has become the norm in Thailand’s larger cities. Employed mothers and fathers who are subject to work pressures sometimes face difficulty in carrying out their parental roles at home. Left unsupervised and unattended, children must find their own ways to deal with a lack of structure, guidance, and even emotional support; under these circumstances they may still look for easy remedies to assuage their sense of loneliness or neglect.
Schools were recently identified as one of the primary institutional locations for yaa baa trafficking and consumption, and many teachers and administrators are now struggling to find ways to navigate their pupils safely through this new passage. However, teaching is a very formal affair in the Thai system. Educational methods are at times rigid, based as they are on the need for absolute respect by pupils for their professors. Dialogue is the exception rather than the rule. Thus, teenagers may be inclined to find their own coping mechanisms. Peer groups build their own models of discourse and behaviour, inventing new reference points or becoming implicated in volatile situations that may degenerate into violent brawls for the most trivial of reasons.
Additionally, there appears to be a lack of concrete shared goals among the younger generation of Thais. “Decline of politicisation, growth of derision”, writes Joël Meissonnier, in reference to a common sensibility he observes among Thai young people. And drug use is unquestionably part of their “soft rebellious” stance.
Interviewed by the Bangkok Post in December 2003, Chartichai Suthiklom, the Deputy Secretary-General of the Thai Office of Narcotics Control Board, estimated that as many as two million people in Thailand have been involved in drug-related activities, either as addicts, consumers, traders, retailers, pusher, producers, financiers, support staff, chemical traders, or carriers. Most have now been re-integrated into society after rehabilitation treatment or prison terms. It is too early to measure the consequences of the entire campaign. But many people have lost their jobs, their social positions, and the validation of society. It is not difficult to imagine part of this population returning to re-established drug networks, even if their involvement is not exclusively based on ATS.
Indeed, the 14,000 factories and 15,000 schools proclaimed “free of drugs” by Thai officials in December 2003 could well be the trees that hide the forest. Drug trafficking and illegal drug consumption have undoubtedly been tightly reined in for the time being. However, they most probably have not been driven away for good.
While Thailand’s “war against drugs” was the opening battle, it is unlikely to be the final one in national efforts to eradicate drug use. And this book, written before the violent and tragic climax of the operation, seeks to explain why. Although the authors’ publication predates the war on drugs waged by the Thai Prime Minister, it can still provide readers with fundamental keys to understanding the historical, geographic, political and sociological settings of the yaa baa phenomenon. Such a book thus provides a better understanding to the current situation regarding illicit drugs in general, and ATS in particular, for both Burma and Thailand.
Director of the IRASEC
Bangkok, February 5, 2004
The 1990s saw an explosive increase in consumption levels of illicit synthetic drugs in Southeast Asia. This increase largely consisted of drugs classified as amphetamine-type stimulants, or ATS, a category that includes methamphetamine. Since then, synthetic products such as methamphetamine and ecstasy have flooded illegal drug markets across East and Southeast Asia. The present study focuses on methamphetamine–the most important of these synthetic drugs in terms of quantities produced and consumed–to account for the rise and functioning of an integrated system of illicit drug production, distribution, and consumption in mainland Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asian methamphetamine comes mainly from Burma. It has also been produced in Thailand, the latter of which accounts for most of the drug’s regional consumer market. In Thailand methamphetamine is known as yaa baa, or ‘madness drug’; its original name yaa maa (‘horse medicine’) being the name of a local pharmaceutical company. In 1996 Sanoh Thienthong, Health Minister at the time in the cabinet of General Chavalit Yongchaiyudth, substituted the name yaa baa  for yaa maa in an attempt to change the image of a product whose consumption levels had already reached alarming proportions.
Regional yaa baa use is concentrated in Thailand, but it has also spread to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and China. Higher-than-average levels of social and economic development seem to favour ATS use by younger populations, particularly school-age youngsters and university students. Macao and Hong Kong show strong ‘recreational’ yaa baa use patterns among these groups. In Hong Kong and urban areas of Thailand, the drug’s popularity with young people is part of a Western-influenced nightlife culture that includes techno music and fashion, clubbing, and illicit drug-taking.
Additionally, ATS use is also common among other kinds of people in the region ranging from truck drivers to farmers, illegal immigrants who may or may not be engaged in prostitution, and political refugees from Burma. Some workers turn to yaa baa to increase their productive capacity, whether physical or intellectual. Hence in Thailand, ATS can be considered as both a labour and a recreational drug. This dual status thus distinguishes it from heroin, also an illicit drug that was formerly popular, but one that was eventually dethroned in the mid-1990s by methamphetamine, the new ‘drug of choice’. Methamphetamine production began to take off in Burma, mainly in areas controlled by the Wa ethnic minority of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), but also in other areas held by various insurgent groups. As this happened there was a corresponding rapid increase in yaa baa traffic and consumption in Thailand—so much so that by the late 1990s, Thai authorities estimated that production levels in Burma would exceed 600 million pills in the year 2000, and reach 800 million by 2002. 
The consequences of the methamphetamine economy for societies and economies in mainland Southeast Asia are wide-ranging. Individuals’ habitual yaa baa use over the long term can threaten social well-being, since those given to such practices are likely to suffer irreparable degeneration of the nervous system and psychological damage. Widespread abuse of the drug by working-age young people also raises the spectre of declining economic productivity, particularly in urban regions where it is surprisingly common to find young people using the drug to excess.
The production and trafficking of ATS and other illicit drugs also bears upon national security, if indirectly. The case of Thailand is particularly striking in this regard. To fight drug trafficking and related violence, the country’s armed forces, police, and customs authorities have been mobilised along the Thai-Burmese border on a scale unmatched since the end of the communist threat. This effort has also seen other formerly anti-communist groups redeployed to drug trafficking campaigns. The fact that Thai military troops from the Laotian and Cambodian fronts have also been diverted to the Burmese border illustrates the perceived urgency of the situation. However, as will be shown later, it can be argued that the armed violence characterizing the illicit drug trades proceeds as much from its illicit nature and the conflict-ridden contexts in which it thrives, as it does from the militarization of anti-drug operations and policies.
Before surveying the economy and geopolitics of illicit substances more closely, it is necessary to clarify the very concept of a ‘drug’. On the face of it, a drug can be defined according to the chemical substances that make up its composition. But legal definitions also come into play: chemical substances deemed as dangerous and lacking in recognized medicinal value typically fall under the purview of international legislation on narcotics. However, apart from the nature of the bio-dynamic effects it may induce, a drug is essentially defined by the relationship the user has with it, to quote the words of the pharmacognosy specialist J-M. Pelt.  Hence, it is necessary for a given chemical substance to be consumed in a specific way in order for it to correspond to what we understand by the term ‘drug’. The method and frequency of substance use, which varies according to the individual, serve to define the parameters of drug addiction.
It is therefore the consumer who, through usage, determines which substance is or is not a drug, according to the particular individual concerned. In reality, for an ‘addict’ to exist, a toxic substance—and by implication, a chemical addiction—is not necessary. Any compulsive or habit-forming practice, whether it involves sport, gambling, work, or even sex, amply illustrates this possibility.  Thus, although some such activities may cause the body to release active substances such as adrenaline or endorphins, this result in itself should not be considered the intrinsic cause of the addiction. 
Thus, to devise efficient counter-addictive practices, research should focus more on the effects and methods of consuming illicit drugs than on the products themselves. Seen from a similar theoretical perspective, one may doubt the efficiency of drug eradication campaigns upon which ‘anti-drug policies’ are based since, in the long run, such policies serve to maintain rather than limit drug trafficking patterns and dynamics.
Given all this, the present study investigates the causes and effects of the entire spectrum of methamphetamine production, trafficking, and consumption. Although methamphetamine production in Burma can be said to spur consumption in Thailand, it is also true that Thailand is the country whose thriving market for drugs stimulates ATS production in Burma and other areas of mainland Southeast Asia. To understand the specific mechanisms of the illicit drug market, one has to provide a clearer picture of the push and pull factors that are so characteristic of an illegal economy. Thus, the study of yaa baa production, trafficking and consumption must be done in regional terms, without dissociating production from consumption. A geographical and geopolitical approach to the phenomenon is therefore desirable, as these perspectives illuminate production and trafficking patterns. Of course, bilateral relations between Burma and Thailand also call for such a geopolitical approach: the consumption boom in Thailand is only the alter ego of the explosive rise in production in Burma, and vice versa.
However, the intricacies of yaa baa consumer markets in Thailand are no less complex than the regional geopolitics of methamphetamine production and trafficking. Yaa baa consumption is indeed extremely diverse and wide-ranging, and the drug in turn proves able to satisfy the expectations of many different types of users. This has clearly to do with the peculiarity of yaa baa itself, a substance that defies the usual consumer profiles for illicit drugs. In Thailand methamphetamine is not positioned along a market segment for psychotropic products, but rather pervades the entire consumer market. Far from conforming to the classical model where a drug becomes associated with a particular social category, yaa baa is as popular with ‘street children’ as it is with privileged youth. Unlike most narcotics, yaa baa is as widely consumed both in rural and urban areas. This is especially the case for user patterns in some politically ‘sensitive’ parts of the countryside, where consumption levels are particularly high. Finally, if methamphetamine is consumed today by an overwhelming majority of young, even very young Thais – from primary school-goers to high school and university students – this is the result of an astonishing trend reversal. As recently as ten years ago, yaa baa belonged to a market comprised mostly of working adults who took it to cope with the demands of physically or mentally taxing livelihoods.
These social trends, coalescing around a drug whose multiple properties allow it to satisfy the varied aspirations of Thai consumers, have served to elevate yaa baa to the ranks of what could be called ‘virtuous substances’. Methamphetamine’s secondary effects are rarely recognized or admitted; according to its fervent supporters, yaa baa has all the advantages of a drug with none of its defects. It is considered something harmless and enticing.
Various interrelated social patterns are often cited to explain the explosive growth in methamphetamine consumption in Thailand. The present study highlights two social distinctions that characterize the population of Thai methamphetamine users. One such divide, between young users and adults, emerges out of a host of divergent drug-taking practices and images of the product. The second division distinguishes ordinary yaa baa consumers from the well-to-do, revealing motivations for taking the drug that differ greatly between the two populations.
In Part One of the book, geographer Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy begins with a brief primer on the chemical and physiological effects of the synthetic substance that forms the basis of this study, namely, methamphetamine, which belongs to a wider drug classification of amphetamine-type stimulants, or ATS. Following this is an account of the historical and geopolitical conditions that first gave rise to methamphetamine production and consumption in mainland Southeast Asia, and that subsequently allowed it to flourish. To better understand the evolution of illicit drug production in Burma (Myanmar), the country’s recent history and protracted armed conflicts are likewise analysed by means of an approach that combines historical geography and geopolitics. Indeed, as already shown by illicit opium production, methamphetamine production in Burma thrives under conditions of a longstanding war economy.
In Part Two, sociologist Joël Meissonnier investigates contemporary conditions in mainland Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand, that help to sustain the yaa baa economy. The sociological ‘method of circuits’ is used to discern patterns in the transport and marketing of methamphetamine pills across the region. The purpose here is to describe the actual circulation of methamphetamine, while at the same time highlight the interests and social interactions of drug intermediaries that stand between producer and consumer. Charting the yaa baa circuit in this way makes it possible to identify the possible geographic passage points, inter-nodal transfers, and the moments and places where illicit drug supplies change hands, as well as to profile those who handle the transactions and the owners who are in charge. It then becomes possible to reconstruct movements by which the circuit is sustained over time by seeing how new yaa baa consumers are drawn into the circuit, and new dealers are incited to resort to trafficking.
Joël Meissonnier then opens Part Three with an historical overview of circumstances faced by successive generations of young Thais during the last quarter of the 20th century. This is undertaken to identify the socio-historical origins of methamphetamine consumption among Thai youth. In brief, the 1970s in Thailand saw the emergence of an educated society whose younger members shared a political conscience; during the 1980s, by contrast, a new generation possessing ambitions rather than convictions had come to the fore. By the late 1990s a third generation of Thai youth had materialized whose members were far more hedonistic than their predecessors. Dazzled by consumerism, this proved also to be the generation of young Thais most inclined to use methamphetamine.
In line with the sociological approach adopted in Part Three, the study then addresses the current state of two major social institutions in Thailand, the school and the family, to show how each has inadvertently helped to expand the numbers of youngsters and young adults who use methamphetamine. Religion has also played an indirect role. The analysis explains how the workings of these institutions effectively render many young people defenceless against the prospect of being lured into illicit drug use. This is so because yaa baa in Thailand is inexpensive, easily accessible, and ubiquitous—even for school-age young people.
Taking into account methamphetamine user practices in Thailand that vary between youngsters and adults, and between city-dwellers and those in the countryside, the purpose of the final section of Part Three is to construct a model that differentiates ATS consumers according to their motivations and financial interests. This abstract model, which aims to simplify reality without falsifying it, demonstrates the complexity of social patterns that characterize the market for yaa baa in Thailand. Moreover, it serves as a foundation for widening the geographical scope of the analysis, as from this original model is generated affiliated hypotheses on methamphetamine use in the three neighbouring countries of Laos, Burma, and Cambodia.
Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy & Joël Meissonnier
 Bangkok-Paris: IRASEC-L’Harmattan, 2002.
 “Yaa Maa is now ‘Madness Drug’”, Bangkok Post, 19 July 1996. “Old Habits Die Hard”, Bangkok Post, 6 Dec. 1998. “Yaa baa, la pilule qui rend fou”, Gavroche, July 2000.
 “Border Supplies Compound the Problem”, Bangkok Post, 23 Nov. 1998; “Junta Gets Blame for Drug Threat”, Bangkok Post, 18 Mar. 2000.
 Jean-Marie Pelt, Drogues et plantes magiques (Paris: Fayard, 1983). Pharmacognosy is a “descriptive pharmacology dealing with crude drugs and simples” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition [Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1995]).
 Regarding addiction to sports practice, refer to Claire Carrier, “Approche clinique du dopage” in Revue Toxibase n°3, (September 2001), pp. 11-14.
 J.-M. Pelt (1983), p. 14. Also refer to Antonio Escohotado, A Brief History of Drugs: from the Stone Age to the Stoned Age (Rochester: Park Street Press, 1999), p. 161.