The History of Opium in Thailand



The History of Opium in Thailand

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Opium was first grown in Northern Thailand in the late 19th century, when hill tribes arrived from Southern China, where the drug was a major commodity. Grown on poor soil at high altitudes and easily transported, it was in fact their most profitable cash crop. Opium production was outlawed in Thailand in 1959, but flourished nonetheless during the Vietnam War. It was during this lucrative period that power struggles erupted for control of the Golden Triangle’s poppy fields. The KMT, allowed by the Thai government to control the illicit drugs trade, and the Shan United Army, based in Burma (now Myanmar), were the largest of the many contenders, including the Thai, Burmese, and Lao armies. Opium production has been cut by more than 80 percent since the 1960s, and most hill tribes now grow other crops, but Thailand is still used as a channel for opium produced in nearby countries.

Smoking opium in custom-built dens became popular in parts of Asia – especially China – in the 19th century.

Britain and China fought the Opium Wars of 1839–42 and 1856–60 over British rights to import opium from India. After the wars the drug was legalized in China and freely traded.

Opium Production

This mural in the House of Opium Museum, Sop Ruak, is one of a series showing traditional poppy harvesting for opium production, a process normally carried out in December and January. The museum also houses artifacts depicting the war between the KMT and the Shan United Army.

Since the 1980s, cash crops, including cabbage, tea, and coffee, have begun to replace poppies grown for opium production. Today, fields of these new crops are a common sight in Northern Thailand.

King Bhumibol, concerned about opiate addiction and the illegal drug trade in his country, has been particularly active in encouraging replacement crops.

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