HAT YAI (AFP): Amphetamine addiction, which has caused havoc in Thailand’s cities and been named its top national security threat, has now spread to the rural south, the army says. “I believe that more than 50 percent of the villages in the south already have a drug problem,” said Lieutenant General Narong Denudom, the commander of Thailand’s Fourth Army which patrols the region. “We are very concerned because drug use is spreading rapidly through the communities,” he said, adding that the situation was only going to worsen. In a region where many toil in rubber plantations and in the fishing industry, drug lords are finding it easy to recruit a network of pushers, he said. “Because people in the south are poor, it’s easy to lure them into the trade.” Another factor behind the boom in amphetamines — known as “ya baa” or “crazy medicine” here — is an efficient new smuggling route which extends from the drug factories in Myanmar to southern Thai ports. The Thai army’s push to close off the rugged northern reaches of the Myanmar border to drug smugglers has forced the trade to be diverted, by air and sea, to the town of Ranong on the southernmost tip of the border. “Because the Third Army has cut off the flow of drugs in the north, they are now flooding into the country via Ranong,” said Narong. From there, they are distributed around the southern provinces, and also by road to Bangkok. Bustling Hat Yai, the main southern city, is buffeted not only by amphetamines from the north, but also by ecstasy, which is shipped up from Malaysia, the army commander said. But amphetamines, pumped out by ethnic rebel groups operating makeshift labs inside the Myanmar border, remain the number-one problem, according to Thai and United States drug-control authorities. The Thai military estimates that last year 600 million amphetamine pills flooded into Thailand across its 2,000 kilometer (1,240 mile) border with Myanmar. Community leaders say drug addiction is reaching crisis proportions, with more than 600,000 Thai youths reportedly hooked on cheap supplies of ya baa. The narcotics control board has announced a plan to tackle the problem at the community level by targeting a quarter of the country’s 71,500 villages to ensure they are drug-free by the end of next year. Under a three-year plan, it aims to eventually reach all those living in rural Thailand. But an army source familiar with operations in the south was critical of the government’s response to the drug crisis, saying it had failed to take any steps to prevent it from spreading across the country. “The drug problem is of great concern, because we never take active measures to stop it. We always [just] wait for the problem to come, and then we try to solve it,” he said. A united approach was needed, just as would be mounted against any other threat to national security, he said. “Although we are confident we can solve the drug problem in our area, to get rid of drugs from the [whole] country, we need to take a much more active approach.”
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