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Lao exports 'often contain narcotics'

BY: The Nation (Thailand) January 25, 2002, Friday

Lao exports 'often contain narcotics'

Lao export items such as hand-made textiles, herbal medicine, furniture and stuffed animals are widely used as a cover for opium and methamphetamine trafficking, said the country's anti-narcotics chief Soubanh Srithirath.

One way in which traffickers, particularly ethnic Hmong people, disguised their illicit shipments was by melting raw opium and using it to dye textiles for export from the land-locked country.

The fact that opium is black, the same as Hmong textiles, means they do not draw attention from customs officials at checkpoints, he said.

The Hmong minority often used this method to export raw opium to customers and relatives in the US, which is home to hundreds of thousands of hill-tribe people who fled after the Communist victory in 1975, he said. Elderly Hmong in the US were still addicted to opium and used the illicit drug as if they were in their homeland, said Soubanh, who is also a minister at the Presidential Office.

Opium was sometimes found hidden in the horns of stuffed animals or concealed in wooden furniture declared as export items to be sent abroad, he said.

Methamphetamines and opium were also found in form of herbal medicine.

The producers dried drugs and turned them into powder before mixing them with honey and declaring them to customs as herbal medicine, he said.

These products were sometimes sent through the mail, Soubanh said. Officials at post offices across the entire the country had been ordered to look for narcotics concealed in packages, he said.

"All postal items destined for the US are heavily checked," he said.Laos, second only to Burma in terms of opium production, is campaigning to rid itself of opium by 2005.

The country produced 117.5 tonnes of opium last year, an amount that could potentially be transformed into 11.75 tonnes of heroin.

The country's poppy-growing area has shrunk an average of 29 per cent annually, from 26,000 hectares in 1996, Soubanh said. Laos is cooperating with the UN in an opium-eradication scheme, that this year would see lands devoted to poppy-growing shrink to only 12,000 hectares, he said.

Supalak Ganjanakhundee

THE NATION