The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

1972: The Year of Decision

Once it is admitted that it will require enormous diplomatic pressure to force the governments of Thailand, Laos, and South Vietnam out of the opium business, the question arises, what is the best way to apply pressure? The Nixon administration claims that it is using the full range o America's political and economic influence, the socalled other means of persuasion, to force Southeast Asian governments to quit the traffic. (12) Unfortunately, there is not the slightest shred of evidence to indicate that there has been any substantial American pressure on these governments to clean up the traffic. Most American officials serving in Southeast Asia are not particularly interested in using their personal power or influence to do anything about the drug traffic. They are there to earn money, kill Communists, or climb a few notches higher on some bureaucratic ladder. Their response to the drug problem has ranged from apathy to embarrassment. Moreover, a number of American officials and agencies are guilty of various levels of complicity in the narcotics traffic: at the lower level, most American officials have made no effort to stem the drug traffic even when they have had the opportunity; American embassies in Vientiane and Saigon glossed over reports of the involvement of high-level traffickers; and finally, the CIA's charter airline, Air America, has been involved in the transport of opium and heroin. Many of the government leaders who have become the cornerstone of American prestige and influence in Indochina are the very people who would have to be purged in an effective antinarcotics drive. In short, the American presence in Southeast Asia is not part of the solution, it is part of the problem.

If America's lavish foreign aid and military assistance programs cannot be used positively to force the governments of Laos, Thailand, and South Vietnam to get out of the opium business, then logic would seem to dictate that an immediate cessation of foreign aid might bring about the desired results. While U.S. bureaucrats, secret agents, and military officers serving in Southeast Asia are indifferent to the will of the people, Congress is extremely sensitive to popular pressure and has the constitutional and legal authority to cut off foreign aid to these countries. A cutoff in foreign aid and military assistance might finally convince these governments that the United States is really serious about ending the heroin traffic.

To be thoroughly effective, the cessation of foreign aid should continue for four or five years, until there is clear-cut evidence that the narcotics traffic has been completely eradicated in each of these three countries. The aid money could be divided between drug treatment programs in the United States and international law enforcement efforts. Some of the money might be turned over to the United Nations to finance special opium eradication programs or law enforcement campaigns in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Rather than letting biased American agencies determine when the traffic has been eliminated and aid payments should be resumed, the United States should rely on the judgment of a more neutral international observer such as the U.N.'s Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

There is every reason to believe that 1972 is shaping up as the year of decision for the international narcotics traffic. This is the year when American voters will make their decision on the political future of Indochina. If President Nixon is reelected he will probably continue his policy of giving unqualified support to President Thieu's administration in South Vietnam and to the right-wing governments in Thailand and Laos. As long as there is no serious threat of a cutoff in foreign aid or a withdrawal of political support, these governments cannot be subjected to any serious pressure and the narcotics traffic will continue unabated. In late 1972 the Turkish government's opium eradication program will eliminate that nation's last poppy fields, and the international narcotics syndicates will have to complete their shift to Southeast Asia. (13)Although much of America's heroin supply has been coming from the Golden Triangle region since the late 1960s, the great majority of it will start coming from Southeast Asia by late 1972 or early 1973.

Thus, through a curious historical coincidence, 1972 is a turning point for both the international heroin traffic and the corrupt governments of Southeast Asia; 1972 will probably be remembered as a crossroads in the history of America's war on narcotics. If aid is cut off and money made available through the United Nations for a systematic opium suppression campaign, then these governments might begin to change their tolerant attitudes toward the heroin traffic. If not, the Golden Triangle is capable of supplying an almost unlimited amount of opium, and America will have to endure the curse of heroin for another generation. Admittedly, an immediate, long-term cessation of military and economic aid to Laos, Thailand, and South Vietnam will probably weaken America's political influence in the region and bring neutralist or Communist governments to power. Indeed, in the final analysis the American people will have to choose between supporting doggedly anti-Communist governments in Southeast Asia or getting heroin out of their high schools.