Deputy NCB chief describes multipronged attack on traffickers
By MAXMILIAN WECHSLER
The Golden Triangle, the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers, remains one of the world’s major sources of illicit drugs, a top Thai police chief has confirmed.
Paisith Sungkahapong, Deputy Secretary-General of the Narcotics Control Board (NCB), says illegal operations in this region include opium production and heroin manufacture, but in recent years the cultivation of the opium poppy in Myanmar has constantly decreased while the production of synthetic drugs in the Golden Triangle has been on the rise, especially methamphetamine tablets (yaba) and crystal meth (“ice”).
According to The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), East and Southeast Asia together make up the world’s largest market for methamphetamine.
“The most popular drug smuggled from neighboring countries to and through Thailand is yaba, followed by crystal meth, ketamine and heroin. There are some small refineries in Thailand to produce heroin from opium, but the big ones are located outside the country,” said Mr Paisith during an exclusive interview from his office at the Office of the Narcotic Control Boards (ONCB) in Phayathai district of Bangkok. “Other drugs smuggled into Thailand are ecstasy and cocaine. Cannabis is grown in Thailand and neighboring countries.
“We work with international partners and the Thai police and military to suppress drug smuggling activities. We receive reports on seizures from international partners and sometimes we go to other countries to help with their investigation.
“We have information that these chemicals for production of these drugs, known as precursors, are being smuggled to the Golden Triangle from India through Bangladesh, from China to Myanmar or Laos, and some via the Mekong River. That’s why it is so important to work with other Mekong sub-region countries in what we call ‘Golden Triangle Operation 1511’ to dry up the supply of precursors. We’ve seized large quantities of precursors since the start of the operation in November 2019, and we’ve arrested a lot of smugglers.”
But it is not just the remote areas of Southeast Asia that are fueling the drug problem. It also occurs much closer to home, says the police chief. “There are also cocaine smuggling rings operated by West African drug syndicates through Suvarnabhumi, Phuket and other airports.
“Before COVID-19, African syndicates were bringing in ecstasy from Europe. Last year we had a case where an African man was working with a Thai woman – maybe she was his wife – to send the drugs to Japan using Thai women as couriers. Some of the women knew they were smuggling and some didn’t know. Many of the couriers were arrested by the Japanese police and later we managed to arrest the African man here.
“The illicit drug problem cuts across all the important issues of society – health, crime, poverty, human rights, and also takes a big toll on the country’s economy and security,” adds Mr Paisith, a career law enforcement officer with a diverse educational background.
That “diverse” background has several interesting surprises, including a diploma in Art and Technique of Film Making (London International Film School, 1984), a Bachelor’s in Law (Ramkhamhaeng University, 1988), and a Master’s in Political Science in Foreign Affairs and Diplomacy (Thammasat University, 1995) as well as Barrister at law (Thai Bar Association, 2017). He also was trained at FBI Academy in 1998.
After receiving training at the Royal Thai Police Academy in 1989 he began his career in law enforcement as a sub-inspector at the Office of the Secretary of the Royal Thai Police (RTP). He was later assigned to the Immigration Bureau, and served as Inspector at the Interpol office in Bangkok with the rank of Police Lieutenant Colonel.
Mr Paisith left the RTP in 2002 to join the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) under Ministry of Justice. His last position at DSI was Director of the Foreign Affairs and Transnational Crime Bureau. He left DSI in 2018 to become Deputy Director-General at the Central Institute of Forensic Science, Ministry of Justice, and was appointed to his current position this year.
As Deputy Secretary-General of the NCB his responsibilities are to assist the Secretary-General of the NCB and to supervise five ONCB bureaus. These bureaus are concerned with International Affairs and Cooperation; Narcotics Crop Survey and Control; ONCB Scientific and Forensic Laboratories; Regional Bureau 3 in Nakhon Ratchasima; and Regional Bureau 4 in Khon Kaen.
“The focus of the ONCB is on the integration of drug control agencies in Thailand and with their international counterparts,” said Mr Paisith. “We do the strategic planning for drug control in the country, and we support other agencies in terms of intelligence. When the government accepts our policy recommendations, they will be used by the ONCB and also by other agencies as well.”
Mr Paisith explained that while the ONCB is tasked with devising the nation’s drug suppression strategy, it is up to the police to enforce it. “Normally we don’t do cases on our own, but join with the police, namely the Narcotic Suppression Bureau (NSB). The ONCB has the authority to search and arrest suspects. We can also interview drug suspects before transferring them to the police for further investigation, but usually when we make an arrest we turn the suspect over to the police right away. We don’t have a detention facility at the ONCB headquarters in Bangkok.”
International cooperation is the key
“The ONCB is keenly aware of the importance of international cooperation in drug control efforts and we are constantly working on ways to maintain, improve, extend and strengthen cooperation both bilaterally and multilaterally with ASEAN, neighboring countries and international organizations.
“We work closely with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of the United States, the Australian Federal Police (AFP), the National Police Agency of Japan (NPA) and the British National Crime Agency (NCA) among others in terms of information and intelligence sharing, joint operation, joint training, etc. We also work with other police liaisons attached to embassies in Thailand.
“An important area of cooperation is with the other five countries in the Greater Mekong Sub-region – Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam – to tackle drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle area under the principle of ‘No Chemicals, No Drugs’. Our 2019-2022 Safe Mekong Operation Plan is focused on interdiction of illicit drugs and their chemical precursors, and bringing the traffickers to justice.
Thailand remains a major destination for narcotics produced in the Golden Triangle and is also a major transit route for drugs that are trafficked elsewhere. Last year the ONCB conducted a joint assessment with the Ministry of Interior on the extent of the drug problem in 82,127 villages and communities in Thailand.
“While the North of Thailand is still the main theatre for drug smugglers, smuggling through the Northeast and West has increased in frequency and volume. Interestingly, the emergency decree announced on March 25 to control the spread of COVID-19 in Thailand allowed the ONCB and our allied law enforcement agencies to more effectively control drug trafficking, especially in the first month of the lockdown. Apparently the smugglers went into lockdown too. This is indicated by the fact that seizures of over 100,000 methamphetamine tablets were rare during that month.
“However, the situation began to return to normal during the second and third phase easing of the lockdown. After May 2020 we started to make seizures of from one to ten million meth tablets in nine districts of six provinces in the North and Northeast. At the beginning of the lockdown the authorities set up many checkpoints throughout the country and the border controls were also very tight, so the drug syndicates were having a difficult time. But after a while they adapted and started using natural channels more.
“Our intelligence networks confirm that the same drug syndicates and fugitives operate in Thailand and neighboring countries to smuggle illegal drugs across borders. There are many drug syndicates, and some of the biggest are involved with producing yaba and smuggling it into Thailand. Some of the masterminds of the syndicates live inside Thailand and some outside. They don’t usually touch the drugs themselves. Most of the drugs are produced by various ethnic militias in the Golden Triangle in neighboring countries. Very little is produced in Thailand.
“We believe that more than 72% of smuggling activities are disrupted by border defense forces working with drug suppression agencies. Based on intelligence reports, it is likely that the smuggling of a large volume of illicit drugs from neighboring countries into Thailand via different routes is pending at this time.”
On a much smaller scale than the cross-border trade, drug smuggling via private courier services through long-distance routes has been on the rise. “Many suspects were recently arrested for smuggling via courier services, yielding yaba tablets and crystal meth. The smuggling of ecstasy and its precursors from Europe via international courier services is also being found. Most of those arrested are youthful offenders. Their M.O. is to smuggle the primary precursors and make club drugs here, to be sold to teenagers hosting parties at private residence in Bangkok and tourist destinations in the provinces.
“Drug trafficking groups have exploited online platforms in parallel with various concealment methods. They use postal and courier services to rapidly deliver drugs to targeted users. Data from the Online Illicit Drug Monitoring System shows a considerable growth of online drug trafficking in April during the period of the emergency decree. In that month 769 online posts of illicit drugs were reported, a two-fold increase from the 383 posts reported in March. Different delivery options are offered, including pickup services, and private and public courier services. Crystal meth is the drug most traded online, followed by cannabis and then yaba tablets.
“The ecstasy epidemic in Thailand is on the upswing, as seen from the rising number of arrests. The process of ecstasy importation is managed by Thai traders collaborating with foreigners. Most of the ecstasy imported into Thailand originates in Europe. It is bought through underground websites using digital money and then sent via postal services.
“The problem of ecstasy in Thailand is still limited, and occurs mainly among younger addicts with good financial status. The price of ecstasy is much higher than meth tablets, and it’s sold mostly in tourist spots and at nightclubs.
“The ONCB is increasing surveillance measures to deter drug smuggling from foreign countries in collaboration with the Thai Postal Company, international shipping companies and social media platforms. Twitter is the most commonly used online platform to market illicit drugs in Thailand, accounting for 91% of the volume (up from 74%). Twitter users are mostly quite young. Other social media platforms like Facebook and Line are used to sell drugs as well. We are now trying to purchase new equipment to allow us to monitor and trace the activities of online drug traders. The objective is to arrest people who use social media to sell drugs, not for any other purpose.”
Mr Paisith said his organization is focusing more than ever on seizing the assets of drug traffickers. He explained that this is often easier than catching drug kingpins red-handed, and it also provides a direct benefit to the ONCB because it can use the seized funds to finance operations.
“Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha came to the ONCB headquarters on May 8 and declared that assets seizure is a top priority in the fight against drug traffickers. I also believe that this is a truly effective way to suppress the drug trade. If you arrest someone with a shipment of drugs, the next day there will be another in his place.
”We can usually get our hands on only the couriers or mid-level guys. If you seize one million yaba tablets today, tomorrow the factory will produce one million more. No matter what quantities we seize or how many people we arrest, the illegal drugs trade will continue unabated. But confiscation of assets deals a real blow to the traffickers because, for one thing, they won’t have the funds to purchase new machines and chemicals to produce the drugs.
“Like the Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO), which is a government organization we work closely with, the ONCB is authorized to seize the assets of criminals. However, there are differences in the two processes. According to AMLO regulations, they can seize assets if they suspect the holder of the assets has broken the law. AMLO can seize assets related to many types of crimes. After assets have been seized – or frozen to be more exact – AMLO begins a further investigation to determine if the crimes are committed. If not, then the assets will be returned.
“Sometimes the investigators know that a suspect is involved in the drug trade and we know the person has a lot of money, houses, land, sports cars or whatever, but maybe we don’t have yet enough solid evidence to show the suspect has broken the law. In such a case we might ask AMLO to seize assets according their laws. We will then continue to investigate to try to secure evidence.”
Summary of Thailand’s drug trends
Mr Paisith concluded the interview by summarizing major trends in the global narcotics trade as they relate to Thailand, as follows:
• The Golden Triangle remains the main drug production area in the region, with a huge impact on the drug situation in Thailand.
• The North remains the major area of drug smuggling into the country, while smuggling through the northeastern and western borders has been increasing in the volume and frequency.
• Drug syndicates have increasingly exploited new technologies, and technology is increasingly being used to track their illegal financial transactions.
• Young people, including children, are at serious risk of involvement with illicit drugs in Thailand.
A call for informants
Mr Paisith said the ONCB needs informants to help it fight illegal drugs use in Thailand. “We have a team which is looking for informants. Anyone can call our hotline by dialing 1386 to give information. But informants go way beyond this. An informant is someone we can believe and trust and who will be assigned to work undercover to collect intelligence for us. We protect every informant, and this includes relocating and giving them a new identity in a witness protection program, if needed, we have to work on this with the Ministry of Justice.”
Mr Paisith Sungkahapong
• 2017: Barrister at law, Thai Bar Association.
• 1998: Certificate in English for law profession, Sukhothai Thammathirat University.
• 1995: Master of Political Science in Foreign Affairs and Diplomacy, Thammasat University.
• 1988: Bachelor of Law, Ramkhamhaeng University.
• 1984: Diploma in Art and Technique of Film Making, London International Film School (UK).
• 1980: Certificate in English as Foreign Language, Hammersmith and West London College (UK).
• 1998: 194th session of FBI National Academy, FBI Academy (USA).
• 1988: Police officer training course, Royal Thai Police Academy.
Selected Work Experience
• 2020 - Present: Deputy Secretary-General, NCB Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB).
• 2018 - 2020: Deputy Director-General Central Institute of Forensic Science (CIFS), Ministry of Justice.
• 2015 - 2018: Director Foreign Affairs and Transnational Crime Bureau, Department of Special Investigation (DSI), Ministry of Justice.
• 2011 - 2015: Director Anti-Human Trafficking Center, DSI, Ministry of Justice.
• 2002 - 2011: Chief and Special Case Inquiry official, Foreign Affairs Division, DSI, Ministry of Justice.
• 1996 - 2002: Inspector (Pol Lt Col) Interpol, Foreign Affairs Division, RTP.
• 1991 - 1996: Sub-Inspector, Immigration Bureau, RTP.
• 1990 - 1991: Sub-Inspector, Office of Inspector General, RTP.
• 1989 - 1990: Sub-Inspector, Office of the Secretary, RTP.
Outstanding Civil Servant of the DSI, Ministry of Justice, 2008.
About the NCB and ONCB
Among other responsibilities and duties the authorities of the Board are to determine the work, plans and measures for preventing and suppressing the offenders relating to narcotic offences; to control investigation, inquiry, suppression and prosecution of offences under narcotic law. Also to prepare and implement projects, to give recommendations to the Cabinet for the improvement of the official performance or in the work plans or projects of the regulatory government agencies on narcotic control and narcotic laws.
The ONCB under the Ministry of Justice is the central agency for drug control and a leading agency in development and driving forward the drug control strategies of Thailand and ASEAN in order to make Thailand safe from drugs. ONCB focuses on the integration of drug control implementation with agencies concerned in the country and with the international counterparts. Narcotic control has been implemented to suit the drug situation in terms of the narcotic drug vigilance, monitoring, drug law enforcement, international cooperation, strengthening of village/community, raising the public awareness and encouraging the participation of non-government agencies, civil societies and private sectors.