A senior police officer from the Shan State border town of Tachileik has dispelled rumours that recently uncovered weapons were “in any way” connected to a planned visit by fugitive former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but said the incident highlights the challenges police face in securing the border.
Mr Thaksin, who is still technically on the run from corruption charges in Thailand, despite the fact his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is the prime minister, cancelled a planned visit to Tachileik after a man was arrested with a cache of weapons.
The proposed Friday, November 9 trip would have brought the controversial politician within a few hundred metres of the country where he is still a wanted man.
But on Tuesday, November 6, Mr Thaksin's lawyer, Nappodon Pattama, issued a statement saying the trip had been cancelled because of security concerns and rumours of an assassination plot.
The decision disappointed many hundreds of Mr Thaksin’s supporters who had already booked hotel rooms in Tachileik for the weekend.
In his statement, Mr Pattama cited a Sunday, October 21 incident in which a Shan man was detained for allegedly attempting to smuggle a rocket-propelled grenade launcher with three rounds of ammunition and an M16 machine gun into Myanmar from Thailand. Mr Nappodon said this hinted at a larger plot to assassinate Mr Thaksin.
But Lieutenant Aung Kyaw Soe of the Anti-Narcotic Task Force, which helps to police the border, told The Myanmar Times he did not believe the weapons were connected to Mr Thaksin’s planned visit.
Lt Aung Kyaw Soe is based in Tachileik and processed the arrested man. However, he acknowledged that policing the border has become increasingly difficult, with an increase in cases this year.
In 2011, his office handled 56 cases of people attempting to traffic drugs into Thailand but so far in 2012 it has already dealt with 84 cases, an increase of 50 percent with a month-and-a-half still to go in the year.
Lt Aung Kyaw Soe said that while his team occasionally receives help from the Thai police on larger cases, they don't have the resources to deal with the sheer volume of illicit traffic crossing the border, which mostly means drugs going out of Myanmar and weapons coming in.
One local businessman in Tachilek, who asked not to be named, said the increased activity of the drug gangs has prompted many men in the town to purchase a handgun for self-defence.
When asked where these men were buying their guns – firearms are strictly controlled in most parts of Myanmar – he said simply: “They come across the border.”
Most of Tachilek's larger casinos have resorted to posting large “No Gun” signs on their entrances in response to this trend, though none have reported any incidents on their floors, police and staff at the casinos say.
The trends in Tachilek appear consistent with reports from other parts of Shan State that indicate the war-torn region has experienced a surge in drug production in recent years.
In its annual survey of opium production in Southeast Asia, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that cultivation of opium in Shan State increased 16pc in the past year, with the vast majority coming from the southern and eastern parts of the state and being trafficked into the large drug markets of Thailand, China, and Indonesia.
U Khun Tun Oo, a prominent Shan politician and former political prisoner, said that increasing violence between the government and non-state armed groups had bolstered the drug trade, which in turn has made the border with Thailand a more dangerous place.
“They [cultivate opium] because there are no other jobs for the local people. They can't work on their farms or in factories because of the fighting.”
He said that most fighting in Southern Shan State between the Tatmadaw and the Shan State Army-South is largely focused on the rural border areas because both sides are seeking control of the illicit drug trade.
While he is not satisfied with the government's response to drug trafficking and other illicit activities on the border, he said authorities in Thailand were also responsible for the problem, “There is corruption on both sides,” he said. “We should have better ways of combating corruption. We need help from international experts in this area.”