© Dan White. No repro without permission.
Squatting in a yard in Phnom Penh, the wild, dusty capital of Cambodia, Chatchom is a frightened man. His hands are shaking as he breaks off half of a small, red pill. It is ‘ya baa’, the ‘crazy’ drug that in the last decade has rampaged through the once booming cities of Thailand and is now threatening to overwhelm all the countries along the banks of the Mekong River.
It flows from the meandering delta waterways of southern Vietnam where Saigon is fast becoming a shooting gallery of heroin addicts, west into Cambodia where a land torn apart by war is now being submerged under a weight of amphetamine addiction. It heads north into Laos where the ruling Stalinist dictatorship remains powerless to stem the flow of poison from its source. Along its other shore the river borders Thailand – a whole nation facing a meltdown into amphetamine fueled chaos. Finally the Mekong makes its way into the ravines of southern China. Not far from its western bank, in a no man’s land between Burma and China, are the hills of the Wa. Here former headhunters are now the biggest producers of heroin and rough speed in South East Asia.
Chatchom crushes the lump of methamphetamine against the body of a plastic lighter and crumbles it on to a piece of silver foil. He holds the foil up to a funnel on a plastic bottle adapted as a water pipe. As he lights it, the sweet, toxic fumes drift through the air. After a frantic coughing fit Chatchom’s eyes glaze over as the cocktail of chemicals overwhelm the synapses of his brain. Chatchom has reason to be afraid. He is on a list. He is marked out for execution.
Until recently he made his living as a drug dealer selling Yabaa in the Thai town of Suphanburi until his business was brutally interrupted. The prime minister of Thailand has declared war on drugs and made it chillingly clear that, “In this war….. drug dealers must die.”
And dying they are. The police have a blacklist of 46,000 suspects and a license to shoot on site. No arrest. No trial. The license to kill comes from the top. The death toll is already 2,274 and Chatchom is in no doubt that he is in danger of becoming another statistic. “The police know what I do, but they have never been able to catch me. Now they don’t need evidence. They can just shoot me down.”
Every day more bodies appear in the streets of every Thai city. Some are gunned down in shoot outs with the police. Others die more simply. Shot in the back of the head, their faces pressed into the mud, they are murdered in cold blooded, military style executions and another name is crossed off the list.
There may be death squads in the land of smiles, but they are only going for the little people. The real drug barons remain untouched and untouchable. The drugs are coming down the Mekong River from remote areas outside the rule of law of any nation state. They are being mainlined into the streets, slums and schools of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Mekong itself is fast becoming a river of death.
Chatchom maybe a fugitive but the place he has run to is part of the problem. In Suphanburi his biggest fear was of a night time knock on the door or an unseen bullet through the back of the skull. Here in Cambodia, ironically, he is safe. There is no war on drugs here. After emerging from 30 years of war, genocide and conflict, Cambodia is facing a new scourge. An official from the United Nations told , “if nothing is done about the drugs flooding into this country then the carnage will make the Killing Fields of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge look like a walk in the park.”
The Cambodian authorities are doing nothing.
Leaving Chatchom to his water pipe and his paranoia I sidestep the glue-sniffing kids and dodge the spaced out moto-taxi drivers. I make my way to the banks of the Mekong. I am going to take a trip up river to try and see for myself what is happening along its banks.
We pass small wooden boats and larger cargo ships transporting anything and everything from China and Thailand.
We pass the town of Kompong Cham, a major dropping off point for heroin being transported east to the streets and port of Saigon. We pass Kratie where the river breaks into whirlpools and rapids and fresh water river dolphins break the surface in twos and threes. Finally we approach the Cambodia Laos border.
The fog shrouded mountains, steamy jungles and island dotted waterways of Stung Treng Province amount to some of the most remote and inaccessible parts of South East Asia. This is bandit country where no one travels the roads after dark and it is unwise to meet the gaze of strangers. In this, the last Cambodian river town before the border with Laos, men still carry guns and the police keep a low profile. The nearby hills of Mondulkiri and Rattanakiri are where ‘Apocalypse Now’ was envisioned.
There is a simple equation of physics on the Mekong River. The police and authorities have very slow boats or no boats at all. Those with something to hide have speed boats mounted with the engines from Toyota pick up trucks. They skim the rapids and whip through canyons of the Mekong at a terrifying sixty miles an hour.
I sit with Kim Saroen. He is a Cambodian customs official and he is not very busy. Lazing in his hammock by the banks of the river he laughs when asked if they ever manage to arrest the traffickers. “We know they come through, but what would we arrest them with? We have no way of catching them. We don’t even have boats or binoculars. Anyway if they have drugs on board then they will also have guns and I have a wife and two children.”
Another speed boat whips past throwing up spray and rocking fishing boats in its wake. “Tell me, how can I catch that?”
Saroen laughs again, lights a cigarette, settles back and kicks off his flip flops. “Would you like a smoke?” He asks.
I drink warm beer from the bottle as the sun goes down and the agent of Cambodian law and order drifts off.
Kim Saroen’s lack of enthusiasm may have another reason. A shipment of heroin worth US$3,000 in Cambodia is worth US$6,000 once smuggled to neighbouring Vietnam. Once it reaches dealers in the West it is worth US$250,000. By the time it is cut with additives for the street the heroin is worth a million US dollars. On the other hand a Cambodian border official earns US$30 in one month. Kim Saroen may be provided with strong incentive to turn a blind eye when a blind eye is needed.
Crossing the border into Laos, I hitch a ride on a returning speed boat. Sharing the ride is a gay Scotsman and his incongruously well manicured Thai boyfriend. Their backpacks are tied down firmly with rope. We are all issued a musty and well used crash helmet. The Thai is looking with disgust at the crash hat. “It’s better ‘an a busted head sweetheart,” points out his companion cheerfully in broad Glaswegian tones.
I ask the driver about his cargo. He looks at me with slight annoyance and replies, “coffee,…… I always carry coffee.”
His distinctly non-conversational tone prompts me to curb any further questions. That and the fact that any chance of more chit-chat is obliterated by the screaming whine of the outsized engine bolted to the back of the boat and muffled by the visored motorcycle helmet that I, now, am relieved the driver has lent me. The narrow, flat-bottomed skiff skims the surface of the water at 60mph, shooting rapids and narrowly missing boulders. It is, at turns, both exhilarating and terrifying. I feel like a rabbit in a wind tunnel as I imagine the bottom of the boat being ripped out and myself disemboweled by the needle sharp points just below the surface.
On the left bank of the river Thailand comes into view. It is the Twenty First Century, draped in neon with 7/11, bad satellite TV, hatchback Japanese cars, surly adolescents, Burger king and a major drug problem. Every day there are lurid media accounts of murders, knife attacks and armed robberies committed by desperate or deranged drug addicts.
Passing by the province of Nakhon Phanom I am looking across the river to a low level war zone. Eight people were killed in one day. Sermsiri Tamonnin, 34, the first victim, was found dead in her house at 6am. She had been shot in the head. Thien Mokmeechai, 46, was gunned also down in his house 6.30am. Witnesses said a man came on a motorcycle, walked into the house and opened fire without warning. At about the same time, Amporn Phiewkham, 43, was shot dead at his house and Vinai Nakajat, 40, was killed by an assailant. Sompong Promson, 49, was shot at by gunmen while eating his lunch. Suriya Thong-on was gunned down in front of his house in tambon Na Thon. Killed in their home in Na Kae district, at about noon, were Thanomsak Moonsurin, 40, and his wife Chalaolak, 39.
One day’s work for the death squads was explained by police chief, Nakhon Phanom police chief Pol Maj-Gen Paiboon Phetplai. He said all of those killed were on record as having been, “involved in the drug trade.”
In other words, they were on the list.
On the other bank is Laos. It is a backward, under-populated, Stalinist state. It has changed little since the 1950s. The people of Laos sit in their crumbling old French colonial towns staring across the river at a future era. The future is bleak.
From Savannahket I take a bus along the river’s route. Passing the Lao capitol of Vientiane. I am now in Asia’s newest backpacker and tourist playground. In the cultural capital of Luang Phabang there are queues of European tour groups in their practical, zippered, functional trousers with water bottles attached to useful belts around their ample middles.
The river continues in a loop west through mountainous ravines, scene of a tribal insurgency by the Hmong minority. We reach the Thai border at Huai Say. This is the heart of the ‘Golden Triangle’.
The little town of Mai Sai lies on a narrow tributary of the Mekong that marks the border between Thailand and Burma. At the end of an overgrown jungle path at the river’s edge in the no man’s land between the two countries I am offered the junkie’s deal of the century. In a tatty clearing within view of Burmese soldiers on the opposite bank of the river tinfoil, matchsticks and burnt shreds of paper litter the ground. Emaciated, zombie-like figures stumble slowly through the vegetation or nod out at the river’s edge. A pair of hollow-eyed addicts squat in the bushes beside the trail, inhaling yabaa through bamboo pipes. It is an intimidating place.
A man in camouflage fatigues, seemingly less wrecked than the others, tells me what’s on the menu. He proffers a large vile containing what looks like about five grams of heroin for the princely sum of fifteen pounds. “You like?….. no problem. Cheap! cheap!”
Here there is only one middle man and he is grinning at me with a goofy smile. “Yabaa? no problem! Cheap! Cheap!” He adds hauling out a plastic bag full of little red pills. Each one costs a great deal less than a cup of tea in Kings Cross Station.
There is a reason why he is offering me the cheapest drugs in the world. We are within a day’s drive of the world’s most successful narco-state.
Driving over a mountain pass in the lawless hills of the North East of Burma, we are heading into the heart of an empire built on guns, drugs and blood. Virtually every car on the road, including our own, is a battered white Toyota Corrolla estate. It’s a boxy seventies classic with reinforced suspension. Our destination is Mong La. It is the pleasure capital of a country that does not exist. The Wa State. Officially part of Burmese territory, Wa State has its own government, its own army, its own police force and its own laws. All of this is built on the proceeds of heroin and yabaa. It is the Wa who are poisoning the world and reaping the profits of death.
To get there we have to drive through one of the world’s nastiest totalitarian countries. In Burma there are military checkpoints every ten miles manned by sour faced officials, sitting under tacky portraits of even tackier military strongmen. They insist on recording my passport details and the exact time of my passing. Dollar-a-day military thugs watch my every move.
A few miles after the last Burmese military check point the road belongs to the Wa, but on either side tribal gangs rule the jungle lined hills. The car comes to a sudden halt. The driver is looking down the barrel of an ancient flintlock rifle. It must be at least a meter long and its owner has appeared from nowhere. I see two more of the same appear from the jungle to our left and right. In a moment the car is surrounded. The driver has his hands off the wheel and is slowly opening the car door an ingratiating smile fixed on his face. I am sinking as low as I can in the back seat pondering whether a lead ball from an eighteenth-century gun can pierce the door of a twentieth-century car. Thankfully I don’t have to find out. The driver has obviously said the right thing.
“They are the tribe of Thai Lu. They don’t see many foreigners here. I think they are frightened that you are here to see their opium fields. This would be a problem.”
I answer him sincerely, “I don’t want to see them if they don’t want to show me. Honestly, tell them we don’t want to leave the road.” Visibly relaxing the Thai Lu lower their flintlocks and accept the cigarettes we hand out. Soon we are just one happy family by the side of the road. They are posing for the camera and someone has hauled out a dirty bottle of lethally strong rice wine.
The party has to come to an end if we are to reach Mong La before nightfall so, light headed with liquor and relief, we move on. It is not long before the road is blocked again. This time it is by a spectacle that makes the flintlock warriors seem commonplace.
A crowd of men are whooping and jumping around the road. It looks like they have turned out the inmates of the local insane asylum. What is even stranger is that each man is carrying a child on his shoulders. Each child seems to be in some kind of a trance. Their faces are elaborately painted and their clothes are shimmering gold and silk. “These are the painted, dancing gods,” my driver tells me. “There is no danger – the children’s bodies are possessed by the good spirits of the forest and the people are celebrating.”
Beeping the horn, inching slowly forward we make our way through this surreal scene and, finally, the way is open to Mong La.
After two days of negotiating potted roads, sour faced soldiers, time warped tribal warriors and shamanistic children, arriving in Mong La is like reaching Shangri La. But this is no misty mountain kingdom.
We have passed from the mindless, dreary oppression of Government ruled Burma to a Chinese Las Vegas built on the proceeds of death. Giant casinos in sickly pastel colours draped in flashing neon are flanked by glittering luxury hotels. American style police cars and gleaming metered cabs glide by exquisite, pale skinned prostitutes sitting outside neat terraced brothels in the town’s main square. They play dominoes between tricks. Lavish transvestite cabarets entertain those punters too jaded to gamble or too tired interrupt the games of dominoes. Glittering restaurants serve freshly killed cobra or skinned dog. This is a town built entirely for hedonistic, guiltless pleasure where vast sums of drug money are laundered at the roulette wheels and card tables.
This may be a clinically efficient society geared up for the marketing of misery beyond its borders and untrammeled pleasure within, but there is no drug problem in Mong La. “We have no crime here,” a beaming Chinese restaurant owner tells me. “If you do wrong they will take you to the office.”
There are no courts or trials by jury in Wa State. Those who are sent to “The Office” are sometimes never seen again. Opium farmers found smoking their own produce, a commodity far too valuable to be consumed at source, are put in a pit for one or two years. They go cold turkey in their own faeces.
The amoral nature of money and the efficiency of its making have been distilled into a guiltless machine. Mong La is the final stop in a trail that starts in the shooting galleries of Zurich, New York or Amsterdam.
Chatchom is living the life of a drug addict and fugitive in the squalid streets of Phnom Penh. The whole region of the Mekong is under threat. In the Wa State they are laughing. There may be a war on drugs but no one has declared war on them. In Mong La it is business as usual.