New Thai museum puts opium in perspective

by Philip Cunningham

BANGKOK — How can drugs be explained in a way that informs but does not preach? Is it possible for educators to get beyond the knee-jerk response that stigmatizes drugs and drug consumers and presents the bare facts? What are the facts?

The Hall of Opium in Chiang Rai, Thailand, due to open late next year, tackles the drug issue in a novel, counter-intuitive way that will be an eye-opener for many people. Set in the mythic Golden Triangle, on a hillside near the bend in the Mekong River where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand come together, the Hall of Opium aims to “hook” some of the million Thai and foreign tourists who trek to Chiang Rai, the northernmost province in Thailand, every year just to say they’ve “been to” the Golden Triangle.

If the facility delivers on its promise, the visitor will enter with one image in mind — the exotic, murky Golden Triangle of lore — and exit with another. The picture is still not a pretty one, but removing the stigma at least opens the door to practical solutions.

Understanding, not contempt

The Mae Fah Luang Foundation is located on a lush estate in the heart of Bangkok tucked in between Siam Square and the Saensaeb Canal. The humanitarian spirit of the king’s mother, known affectionately as Mae Fah Luang (Royal Mother of the Sky) lives on in the three-story office block inside the gates of Srapathum Palace.

Setting the opium story straight

The history of opium as it is offered at the Golden Triangle Park corrects a number of popular misconceptions. Here are the facts:

* The opium trade evolved from West to East, with British globalizers of the day selling Indian opium to the Chinese (whose “just say no” campaign, known as the Opium Wars, failed) in order to pay for tea.

* Heroin originally hailed not from the Golden Triangle, but from Bayer labs in Germany, where it was first produced commercially in 1898 as a painkiller and supposedly nonaddictive cough suppressant. It was put on the market a year before a milder painkilling drug known as aspirin.

* Turkey was the prime source of opium for Siam (former name for Thailand) until World War II disrupted shipping routes. In response, Siam commissioned the purchase of opium from small-scale producers in the hills of northern Siam and nearby Burma.

* Opium was legal in Thailand from the time of the Bowring Treaty in the mid-19th century until 1958, having been forced upon Siam, as it was in China, by British demands for “free trade.”

* The hill tribes are not by tradition commercial opium growers, but got into the business during the Cold War, when opium was banned and production was forced to shift to more remote areas.

* Opium was banned with much pomp and circumstance by U.S. client states in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, while U.S. allies and intelligence services secretly dealt in it for cash revenue to prop up anticommunist groups, as documented in Al McCoy’s “The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia.”

* Traditional sources of revenue were destroyed by British free-trade agreements, and gradually opium joined tobacco, timber and alcohol as a basic source of government income. At times, opium kicked in as much as 15 percent of the total national excise revenue. Once the Bowring Treaty pried the door open, opium was a taxable legal commodity, though addicts were not held in high repute and it was generally limited in use to the “alien” community of Chinese traders.

* Thailand’s King Rama III opposed legalization to no avail, though there remains an “anti-opium” Buddha image from his reign at Bangkok’s Wat Suthat that was forged from melted-down opium pipe.