The American Colony of Thailand: how Thailand’s unstable politics is linked to the global opium trade

Carlton Meyer, “The American Colony of Thailand” (Tales of the American Empire, 2 September 2022)

Once again this ongoing series on the history of US global imperialism comes out with a real gem, this one being a history of US-Thai relations since the 1940s and of how Thailand became an integral part of the global opium trade through the infamous Golden Triangle network of opium overlords and their links to the pre-war opium trade between the US and China. The early part of the mini-documentary gives an overview of how Thailand was dragged into the Second World War by US-Japanese fighting in Burma (now Myanmar) and how this overlapped with China’s war against Japan and the civil war between Chinese Nationalist forces under Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kaishek) and Communist forces under Mao Zedong. After the Communists routed the Nationalists in 1949, some Nationalist forces fled to northern Thailand bordering Burma and Laos and established opium growing there: the area they settled became the Golden Triangle of opium production. At about the same time, the CIA was established by US President Harry S Truman as a permanent intelligence-gathering agency. With World War II over, funding for collecting intelligence shrank and the CIA began looking for its own sources of funding. The opium trade in Southeast Asia fitted the bill and the CIA organised the first of many coups it would conduct around the world over the next half-century and beyond: it helped the Thai military overthrow the Thai government in 1947. From then on, for well over 20 years right into the early 1970s, Thailand was ruled by a series of military governments who were bribed by the CIA with profits from the opium trade. During this time, Thailand served as a massive airbase for the US military to launch campaigns into Indochina during the Vietnam War.

Aided by archived films going back to the 1940s, Meyer demonstrates how intricately involved Thailand was in the Vietnam War and how the opium trade helped fund US military adventures in Southeast Asia. The mini-documentary relies on a television interview with famous US war veteran Bo Gritz who discovered the huge extent of US and CIA involvement in drug running while visiting Burma and meeting drug overlord Khun Sa to discuss the return of US prisoners of war in 1986.

Although Thailand would later get rid of military rule and assert its independence from US domination in the 1970s, the effect of US domination from the 1940s to 1973 continues well into the early 21st century: despite having a constitutional monarchy and appearing to be a Western-style parliamentary democracy, Thailand still seems very fragile politically. Since the year 2000 the country has been ruled by military juntas twice, in 2006 – 2008 and again in 2014 – 2019. While the Golden Triangle in Thailand may no longer be the dominant producer of opium – that dubious honour having gone to Afghanistan – in Myanmar and Laos, which are much poorer nations than Thailand, Golden Triangle opium production is still big business and Myanmar is the world’s second largest producer of opium after Afghanistan. Many in Myanmar and Laos involved in growing opium are farmers from indigenous hill tribes living in poverty and who historically have resisted rule from the dominant ethnic Burmese and Laotians in their respective nations.

The video bears repeated viewing as an introduction into the post-war history of Thailand and the links it uncovers and explains between Thailand’s current unstable politics and its past role in the global opium trade and as a slave colony and airbase to the US during the Vietnam War.