Hill Tribes and the cultivation of opium

A tribal woman in a poppy field hill tribes opium

Table of Contents

Thailand and the Opium problem

Only in the 1990s Thai authorities were successful in eradicating the poppy fields from the mountains in North Thailand. In 1991 opium was still available in some hill tribe communities but disappeared in later years.

Immigrants from China brought with them the habit of opium smoking to Siam in the early 19th century. The Siamese government established an opium monopoly that generated lots of tax money. Involvement in the opium trade was very lucrative and it was easy money for governments.

The hill tribes of North Thailand started to produce opium on a large scale only after World War Two although some of the tribes, such as the Hmong, already grew opium as a cash crop as early as 1905. Only pressure from the US and involvement of the Thai monarchy slowly made an end to the cultivation of opium in North Thailand.

Woman in flower field
Mien (Yao) woman in a poppy field, early 1980s. Picture by John Spies.

Introduction to the Hill Tribes and Opium

This is not an academic dissertation on the history of hill tribes and opium. It is based on my own, as yet, limited research and experiences. 

As said, the arrival of more and more Chinese immigrants in the early 19th century in Bangkok also brought opium to Siam. At first, the kings of Siam issued laws prohibiting the sale and use of opium. It was the pressure of the British Empire that made sure that opium was there to stay. Siam signed the Bowring Treaty in 1855 and had to give up the Royal trade monopoly which was one of the major sources of income. 

The opium trade was a Chinese-managed franchise. However, in 1907 the government took over the management of this monopoly which accounted for 50% of the income of the government.  The government imported opium from Yunnan province in China and from Iran. In the early 20th century the Hmong were already involved in opium cultivation and trade. British consuls Wood and Moor reported this during their tour of North Thailand in 1905 and 1906. 

Woman in poppy field hill tribes opium
Mien (Yao) woman scratching mature seed pods. Picture by John Spies.

North Thailand and the drug trade

Although the government outlawed the cultivation and use of opium in 1958 it proved difficult to put this law into practice. The government had little control over large parts of Northern Thailand until the 1980s. There were very few good roads so many places could only be reached by helicopter. Kuomintang forces, that had crossed the border in Thailand from Burma, controlled drug-trafficking routes.

The United Shan State Army, headed by Khun Sa, was in charge of other border areas in Chiang Rai province. Chiang Mai was a major hub in the opium and heroin trade that serviced US forces in Vietnam and the domestic US market. Thailand features in the movie “American Gangster”, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. This movie is about the drug trade in the 1970s..

Man sitting in a chair hill tribes opium
Khun Sa Museum in Therd Thai

Hill Tribes and the Opium Poppy

Many of the Hill Tribes, like Akha, Hmong, Lisu, Lahu, and Yao have cultivated the opium poppy for most of the 20th century in remote mountains in the North of Thailand. Opium became an important cash crop for these ethnic minorities after World War Two. However, some of them, such as the Hmong, had been growing the opium poppy in North Thailand in the early 20th century. The Thai government outlawed the cultivation of opium in 1958. It was not until the early 1990s though that the cultivation of opium stopped.  

Two hands with poppy hill tribes opium
Milking the opium poppy. Picture by John Spies.

My opium smoking experience

Smoking opium was one of the attractions of hill tribe trekking in the early days. During a four-day hill tribe trekking with a group of Dutch tourists I smoked a couple of pipes of opium in a Lahu village in Chiang Rai province.I had quit smoking cigarettes shortly before but I was curious how smoking opium would be. I remember lying on my side in a half-dark tribal house inhaling the sweet smoke of the opium pipe. After having smoked a couple of pipes I was disappointed that it didn’t give me much pleasure. I didn’t share my experience with my fellow travelers as I was the tour leader of the group. I never smoked opium again.

Woman in a poppy field hill tribes opium
A Lisu woman scrapes the milky fluid off the poppy seed pod at Doi Lang, Chiang Rai province. Picture by Otome Hutheesingh.

Thailand and Opium

The British Empire forced China to accept opium as payment for products such as tea, silk, and spices it exported from China to Europe. They fought two wars with the Chinese in the mid-1800s. Chinese immigrants then brought their opium addiction to Siam.  Siamese, and later Thai, governments were halfheartedly committed to eradication opium. They however didn’t take forceful action to achieve this until the 1980s. Involvement in the opium trade simply was too lucrative for the government. 

British consuls visit Chiengkham in 1905

There is evidence that the Hmong people (called Meao in this excerpt) were already growing opium more than 100 years ago. British consuls W.A.R.Wood and G.H.R.Moor visited the Chiang Kham (Chiengkham in the old spelling) district in late 1905 and reported that traders were coming to villages to buy the opium. That this was illegal was well known to the Hmong people who were very secretive. Moor wrote this in his consular tour report:
“The next place to be visited was Chiengkam, and as circumstances rendered it necessary to go there via Nan, Mr.Wood and myself on quitting the latter place took the “Doi Ku” route which passes through one of the districts where opium is said to be cultivated and sold by the hill “Meaos” and which I had for long been anxious to visit.”

The Haw opium traders

Moor wrote that Siamese authorities were well aware of opium cultivation. Opium farm officials told people that cultivation was only for local consumption. Moor didn’t believe this: “This seems very unlikely, as the Meaos exhibited signs of the possession of considerable wealth, which  is quite impossible to account for by their ostensible occupation of breeding pigs and the cultivation of hill rice and Indian corn, none of which are raised in quantities much exceeding he requirements of local consumption.”
Moore concludes that they found evidence that Haw traders came up the difficult mountain trails with their pack mules to buy opium from the villagers. He also writes that the Meao were “very reticent on the subject of opium cultivation and are evidently aware of the illicit nature thereof.”

Artificial flower field
Artificial poppy field, opium museum Chiang Saen

Opium plantations at high altitude

Moor continues: “The pass over the Doi Ku is about 2000 feet in direct ascent, and it is on the higher parts of the mountain, which must be 5000 – 6000 feet at its summit that the cultivation of opium is carried on. Mr. Wood and myself followed one of the side tracks for a long way but we could not reach the actual poppy plantations. These were however pointed out to us from a distance and there is plenty of direct evidence as to the existence and to the carrying on of a trade in opium.”
American anthropologist Michael Moerman took the below picture in January 1960 of a Hmong caravan passing through Ban Ping, a village close to Chiang Kham.

People and horses in a village
Meo men, woman, and child, with ponies in front Moerman's house January 1960

The situation after World War Two

Most of the hill tribe population that now lives in North Thailand migrated to the country after World War Two. There are no statistics of this migration and settlement. There were more significant developments after the war concerning the supply of opium to the Thai opium monopoly. Thailand imported most of its opium from Iran and Yunnan province in China. The Iranian government cracked down on the opium trade and the Communist takeover in China resulted in the drying up of the opium supply from these countries. The Golden Triangle, the mountainous and adjoining areas of Shan State in Burma, Laos en North Thailand filled the void.

Tribal woman on a mountain
Hmong woman in front of a poppy field on Doi Chiang Dao, early 1970s. Picture by Garnet Hoyes.

Thai government prohibits the use and trade of opium

In 1958 the Thai government prohibited the use and trade of opium making the growing of opium much more risky. The death sentence could be applied to people trading opium. Despite the ban on consumption and cultivation of opium, the cultivation continued unabated in the Northern Highlands in the 1960s. It was also fueled by the demand of US troops involved in the Vietnam conflict. In that period, North Thailand was in turmoil. Several armed groups such as the United Shan State Army of Khun Sa and the Chinese KMT (Kuomintang) army were controlling the opium trade. In 1967 a battle took place on the border of Thailand and Laos involving drug traders.

The Thai army attacked Khun Sa’s headquarters in a town called Ban Hin Taek in 1982 and drove Khun Sa and his army across the border into Burma. The Thai government has changed the name of Ban Hin Taek in Therd Thai. The former headquarters of Khun Sa has become a small museum. Therd Thai is a bit of an off-the-beaten-track destination but worth a visit, if you have the time. Few tourists venture out to this large, remote village. The people of Therd Thai are mainly Shan (Tai Yai).

People watching a heap of pipes
Burning of opium pipes at Thapae Gate in Chiang Mai, 1959. Picture by Boonserm Satrabhaya.

The Royal Project 

The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej initiated the Royal Project in northern Thailand in the late 1960s. One of the major aims of these development projects was eradicating the cultivation of opium by hill tribes in the hills and mountains of the North. The Royal Project is the collective name of many big and small local projects in lots of locations in the north. In short, these projects offered alternative cash crops such as vegetables, flowers, coffee, and other products as a substitute for opium. 

Infrastructure played a very important part in this process. To sell these cash crops you need access to local fresh markets such as the Warorot and Muang Mai market in Chiang Mai. The Royal Project also opened shops in Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai where its products are for sale. 

Man and woman in a field hill tribes opium
Thai official and Lisu woman in poppy field. Picture by Otome Hutheesingh.

References for this article

B.J.Terwiel, The Bowring Treaty: Imperialism and the Indigenous Perspective, Journal of the Siam Society

Alfred W.McCoy, the Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, New York and London, 1973

Consular tour to Phré, Chiengkam, Chiengmai and Chiengsen, 1905-1906, National Archives, London, UK