The Ya Ba Crisis of Thailand and Minnesota

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- I wonder if St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, on his recent trip to Thailand to meet a new group of Hmong refugees heading to America, noticed a rampaging social problem that Thailand shares with Minnesota: an epidemic of methamphetamine abuse.

Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has called methamphetamine -- in Thai it's called "ya ba" for "crazy medicine" -- the nation's No. 1 national security problem. That's because of the vast tax sums Thailand has had to spend on education, interdiction, seeking out and destroying meth labs, prison overcrowding, and rehabilitation of addicts.

Sound familiar, Minnesota?

In fact, the sickness is far more advanced in Thailand than it is here -- so far.

Up to one in five Thais have used methamphetamine, which is also called "the diligent drug" in Thailand because it's used by truck drivers, cabbies, factory workers and others who need to work long hours to make enough money to survive. Meth in Thailand is usually taken in pill form, while the inhalable powder form is more popular in Minnesota.

Ruthless Campaign

In mid-1997, Thailand's economy crashed, shrinking by 12 percent in one year and putting 2 million Thai's out of work. Many of the jobless took "ya ba" for relief. Quickly sucked into addiction, they started selling the pills themselves to make money to buy more, creating a pyramidical direct-sales network that accelerated and amplified the epidemic many times. By 2002, 90 percent of all drug cases involved methamphetamines.

Worst of all was the "Ruthless Campaign" launched by the Thai government last year to snuff out the crisis. Started on Feb. 1, 2003, the campaign began with a mass media anti-drug blitz but quickly turned darker.

Prime Minister Thaksin, known as the toughest Southeast Asian leader since Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore, announced that "it may be necessary to have casualties. If there are deaths among dealers, it's normal."

Over the next two months -- until an international outcry brought attention to the executions -- as many as 3,000 Thais, mostly drug dealers but also many innocents, were caught in the crossfire, killed by gunshots to the head. The government showed, night after night on its TV channels, images of methamphetamine dealers lying in pools of blood. After liberal Thai newspapers began to protest, joining the international warnings, the government backed off the "Ruthless Campaign" and the killings stopped.

That last bit definitely doesn't sound like Minnesota, thank God.

State Security

But make no mistake, the meth crisis in this state is part of the same global contagion that Thailand is suffering from. Indeed, we have many of the same contributing factors to the epidemic that contributed to the Thai crisis, only mixed in a less lethal form. A main similarity is an economic downturn feeding the problem, which begins in rural areas and moves to the cities.

We can learn many lessons, positive and negative, from studying Thailand's handling of the epidemic. The brutal approach, for instance, was obviously a non-starter.

But after retreating from the Ruthless Campaign, more enlightened Thai government agencies and actors got started on the problem, and they've made major headway.

They started on a new tack to fight meth by employing the same techniques they'd used against HIV/AIDS in Thailand. The centerpiece of that campaign was intensive social education about the risks of HIV and the steps to prevent it, carried out in schools, markets, brothels, and in the media.

Those steps won international praise for Thailand, which because of its vast sex industry was thought to be in danger of infection rates so explosive the country could collapse. It didn't happen.

Just to see the meth problem as one of state security, as Thailand properly saw the HIV/Aids threat, is a major positive step. In Thailand, this is easier because most of the "ya ba" in Thailand is manufactured by rebel states in neighboring northern Burma (Myanmar), which uses drug trafficking to finance their war for independence.

Variant Strains

It might be harder for us in Minnesota to see our connection to Burma than it is for the Thais, but the same connections are there. Drugs, just like the flu, start one place in the world and find their way to another. Wars of revolution in one part of the world morph into drug crises in another.

We saw it happen with cocaine. Now with meth. Sometimes the route of infection is direct, such as in California, where Thai drug smugglers use the state's large Thai immigrant population as cover to import millions of Burma-made "ya ba" pills into the state, fueling a meth crisis there.

Other times a variant strain arises, such in Minnesota where the home-cooked, powdered form of meth is favored by users.

In any case, we've caught the bug. And we can learn from Thailand's mistakes and successes to help us get over it.

Copyright @ 2004 The McGill Report