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Task Force 399
The US Embassy supplied sniper rifles to the Thai army in north Thailand.
I suspected from what I heard in the villages and on the street that US forces were involved in killing hill tribe, and that when killings happened, they were called killings of Wa army coming into Thailand when in fact they were hill tribe killed on the Thai side.
Nasty Job for Task Force 399 -- U.S. Special Forces to join Thailand's war on drugs from Burma
Foreign Affairs News Keywords: THAILAND BURMA US TROOPS DRUG TRAFFICKING
By Rodney Tasker/BANGKOK and Bertil Lintner/CHIANG MAI
THEY'RE NOT related but the timing may be a bad portent. As Beijing and Washington wrangle over a U.S. spy plane, U.S. troops are starting to move into northern Thailand relatively close to the Chinese border. The vast majority are preparing for the annual Thai-U.S. Cobra Gold military exercises in May. But some U.S. Special Forces in the same area are more stealthily joining what will be known as Task Force 399.
Some 5,000 U.S. troops will come to Thailand to take part in Cobra Gold--the biggest joint U.S. military exercise in Asia this year--and a handful will stay to join the war on drugs. The U.S. military has mounted low-level military training missions in Thailand under a programme called Baker Torch for several years. But the new, more secretive Task Force 399 involvement will be its most important in the kingdom.
The task force's goal is to stem an enormous flow of drugs, particularly methamphetamines, smuggled from Burma into Thailand. About 20 U.S. soldiers from the 1st Special Forces Group serving as instructors will join 100 Thai Special Forces men, two infantry companies of about 100 men each and 100 Border Patrol Police to make up the task force, according to senior Thai and foreign security officials. Once in place, the U.S. Special Forces will be nearly 200 kilometres by road from the Chinese border.
The U.S. instructors will officially start operating with the 3rd Army in May and join the task force in October. The cross-border flood of methamphetamines, mainly from laboratories in areas controlled by the Wa ethnic minority in Burma's Shan state, has reached a crisis point for the Thais. Up to 800 million tablets are expected to inundate Thailand this year. Concern at how fast this is undermining society in an old U.S. ally prompted the Americans to act, says a Western diplomat.
The 15,000-strong United Wa State Army, which is aligned with Rangoon, is accused by Thai anti-narcotics agencies of being the chief maker of the methamphetamine tablets. At the same time, tension is high on the Thai-Burmese border following a clash near the border town of Mae Sai in February in which dozens of Burmese troops were killed. As one Bangkok-based foreign intelligence official says, the mission for the United States is "a high-risk game, given fragile Thai-Burma relations on the border."
It is also a gamble given similar, but much larger and still growing, U.S. military involvement to stamp out drugs production in Colombia. Critics in the U.S. Congress are warning the United States could be sucked into a bloody civil war there if U.S. troops are gradually drawn into battle with narco-guerrillas. There is no such civil war in Thailand, but just across its borders are both sensitive Burma and China--Rangoon's only major ally and is its main arms supplier.
The Wa are equipped with Chinese weapons, and are helping Beijing build a road network through Burma to the Burmese coast. China deals with the Wa because they are the dominant ethnic force in northeast Burma. Most recently, Thai intelligence officials say the Wa acquired sophisticated HN-5N surface-to-air missiles from China. They may have come from the black market, but for the arms to reach Burma, officials in China must, at very least, have turned a blind eye.
Task Force 399 is supposed to confront drug traffickers in Thailand only and the U.S. Special Forces will only be instructors. Leadership of anti-narcotics operations was taken from the police and given to the northern-based 3rd Army by former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai in October 1998. The U.S. component adds to the Thai military's role on the frontline of what is Thailand's biggest national security problem.
Thai officials say the Americans are keen to stop the Wa manufacturing and smuggling drugs--though Task Force 399 will be based in Thailand, at Mae Rim village, just north of the major town of Chiang Mai. Senior Thai officers and U.S. officials are reluctant even to confirm the existence of the task force. The Americans only stress their role in training the 3rd Army, and that the task force will help interdict drug traffickers inside Thailand. Thai security officials say the force will have the latest night-vision and radar equipment, backed by two American-made Black Hawk helicopters.
In October the three-year mandate given to the army by Chuan expires. It is unclear what will happen to anti-drugs operations under new Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But the new U.S. role worries some of the more nationalistic in the Thai military. "This is raising some concern among progressive ranking officers," says Panitan Wattanayagorn, a Chulalongkorn University military affairs scholar and former security adviser to Chuan. "They are not too happy. They also know this is not a war that can be easily fought."
MUDDY BORDER SITUATION
At an April 4 news conference following a meeting in Burma of the Regional Border Committee, Lt.-Gen. Wattanachai Chaimuanwong, the 3rd Army's commander, appeared pleased that Burmese generals, whom he had repeatedly criticized for alleged involvement in the drug trade, were now being cooperative. He quoted the Burmese as promising to destroy drug laboratories identified by the Thais and to allow verification of the destruction by "unbiased" media.
Was Wattanachai only reflecting the position of new Defence Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who boasts of his good relations with the Burmese military junta? A senior army officer involved in the talks says Wattanachai was sincere. "I think the Burmese have their internal problems, including a poor economy, and the border drugs situation has become common knowledge so they need friends--particularly the Thais," the officer says. By internal problems, he is referring to the power struggle between Burmese army commander Gen. Maung Aye and the junta's first secretary, Lt.-Gen. Khin Nyunt. Whether this will affect the task force's future and the Thai army's anti-drug operations remains to be seen. Says Panitan: "I think academics and the media know the situation well, and are watching Chavalit closely."
The Thai military has a list of about 60 drug laboratories, mainly controlled by the Wa, in Burma. A day after his return Wattanachai cheekily sent the Burmese the locations of three such sites, though observers think it inconceivable that Rangoon doesn't know where the labs are. Thai officers say that Khin Nyunt is particularly close to the Wa. In contrast, Wattanachai told the REVIEW in December, "Maung Aye despises the Wa."
Senior Thai military officers say they believe Maung Aye is wary of Khin Nyunt's influence over the Wa army. They say Maung Aye recently sent light infantry into eastern Shan state--both as a show of force against the Thais and to undermine Khin Nyunt's power base. The officers say that the move is also viewed as an attempt to contain the Wa fighters, whom Maung Aye would dearly like to disarm.
Beijing, meanwhile, agreed in March to a Thai proposal that China, Thailand and Burma cooperate against drug trafficking. Thai senior security officials have said that Chinese officials in Burma helped resettle tens of thousands of Wa from the northern border with China to the southern border with Thailand. They said the Chinese apparently wanted to move the drug problem away from their back door. The officials suspect that by joining Rangoon and Bangkok, the Chinese hope to keep a closer eye on what the U.S. military is up to in northern Thailand.
It's shaping into a muddy border situation. As a Western intelligence official puts it, the drug-trafficking Wa are confronted by Thai troops on the border, soon to be backed by U.S. instructors; they are opposed by Maung Aye, supported by Khin Nyunt, and apparently armed by the Chinese--who now want to be part of a tripartite anti-drug effort. Says the official: "If not handled properly, this could be even messier than Colombia."
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