BANGKOK, Thailand -- When the CIA, Thai police, Chinese guerrillas and
others were linked to Southeast Asia's wealthy heroin dealers during
the 20th century, no one imagined fruit and vegetables would provide
delicious replacement crops to fight the official corruption and
rescue impoverished tribes growing opium in northern Thailand.
   "Our project is the only one in the world that has succeeded in
replacing opium with other crops. No other country has done it,"
Prince Bhisadej Rajani, director of the Royal Project opium crop
replacement program said in an interview.
   The project claims to enable more than 100,000 indigenous Hmong,
Yao, Akha, Karen and other ethnic tribal people to grow fruit,
vegetables, herbs, flowers, mushrooms, tea and coffee instead of
   Initiated in 1969 by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the project was
helped by U.S. taxpayers but is now supported by Thai government
subsidies, packaging and marketing.
   The farms on land formerly used for opium fields also attract
officials from Laos, Myanmar and Colombia who hope to replace their
countries' drug crops or, in Bhutan, curb rural poverty.
   But when Prince Bhisadej and a handful of experts flew to Kabul,
Afghanistan, about 10 years ago to see if that war-ravaged nation
could copy Thailand's anti-opium experiment, their U.S.-supported trip
ended in failure.
   U.S. security forces escorted them to a village which did not grow
opium, but was next to another village which grew illegal poppies.
   "We introduced some new crops for those particular non-opium
people, so the opium people would try and copy," Prince Bhisadej said.
   "But nobody wanted to do the organization" to transport the
replacement food crops to markets and arrange for them to be sold.
   "The Americans have their aircraft bringing food to the American
soldiers, about three or four flights per day. The [crop replacement]
produce could be sent back by the American planes, which go back
empty" to Kabul and other cities where markets are available, he said.
   But his suggestions were ignored and the program was shelved.
   As a result, "the village I went to, where I was taken to, now are
opium growers."
   Some of Thailand's so-called "hill tribes" continue to grow a
relatively tiny amount of illicit opium, which is cooked and
concentrated into stronger heroin powder for domestic consumption and
international export.
   But most of this country's narcotics zone has been pacified by the
agricultural Royal Project.
   In 1970, Thailand was producing more than 200 tons of illegal opium
each year, "enough to supply the annual needs of every heroin addict
in the United States two or three times over," according to a Royal
Project report.
   After studying robust peach stems grafted onto weaker peach trees,
King Bhumibol decided to end opium growing by introducing peaches and
other crops which could thrive in the north's cool weather and not
compete with hotter lowland farms.
   Tribes were given seeds and saplings, plus transportation and other support.
   The new crops were sold at local markets, much cheaper than fruit
and vegetables imported from America and elsewhere.
   Prince Bhisadej said he met American Agricultural Research Service
(ARS) officials in the early 1970s soon after the project began, who
offered cash "to find crops to replace opium."
   ARS is the U.S. Agriculture Department's research wing and was
interested "because the opium got into America. It was being smuggled
in," after being converted into heroin, he said.
   Eventually, Washington paid more than $6 million to fund 80
projects in the north, said the prince who is now 96 years old.
   U.S., European and U.N. financing rapidly advanced the program
before sloping off, and the Thai government's annual multi-million
dollar subsidies now keep the Royal Project afloat.
   "We don't make a profit. We sell the vegetables and the fruit. Our
transportation expenses, and so on, are deducted from our income. The
rest we give to the hill tribes," the prince said.
   "About 98 percent" of Thailand's previous opium production was
stopped thanks to crop replacements and police suppression, he said.
    At a high-profile public relations dinner in Bangkok on March 4,
Prince Bhisadej gave a speech describing how the Royal Project was
hosting 50 foreign chefs from some of the world's finest restaurants
and had taken them the project's farms.
   The chefs met the tribes, witnessed their rustic cooking
techniques, tasted their traditional meals and then returned to
Bangkok to prepare an elaborate "50 Best Explores Thailand Gala
Dinner" to show how the project's crops could also become exquisite
   "Opium production is highly labor intensive," said U.S.
anthropologist David Feingold, a former United Nations Educational,
Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) official who also lived
and worked with Thailand's northern tribes.
   "For the Akha people that I studied, it took 387 man-hours to
produce 1.6 kilos of opium. That was about 80 percent more than the
labor input into upland rice," Mr. Feingold said in an interview.
   "So opium was not a terrific crop for the growers" but does enjoy
high value and low transportation costs.
   "In an upland environment where transport is difficult and
expensive, this was important. Also opium was an important medicine,
it served as a currency...and was used to a certain extent
recreationally," mostly among older Akha males.
   Poverty was more devastating than addiction, he said.
   "With the Akha, they smoked mainly raw opium, essentially opium as
it comes out of the plant. In Southeast Asia, that opium has between 9
and 11 percent morphine content. Which means [smoking] down a pipe,
you are getting about one percent morphine content.
   "There were people who had problems with abusing opium, just as
when you have lots of people who drink and you have people who have
problems with alcohol," he said.
   "The crop replacement programs had additional side benefits in that
they brought certain services, like health services to hill tribe
villages," Mr. Feingold said.
   In the 1300s, when Thailand was known as Siam, King U Thong outlawed opium.
   In the 1800s, opium consumption soared across much of Asia after
British colonialists legally grew the poppies in India for massive
sales to China, and enforced those lucrative capitalist ventures by
fighting two Opium Wars.
   The 1839-42 Opium War between London and Beijing defeated China's
attempt to ban British India's opium after too many Chinese became
junkies and the country hemorrhaged cash.
   The 1856-60 Opium War stacked London and Paris against Beijing,
forcing a ruined China to cede Hong Kong to Britain and open five
coastal ports to foreign traders.
   Bangkok reinforced opium's illegality in 1803 when King Rama I
decreed punishments for its use.
   King Rama III tightened those bans and involved Buddhist clergy in
public "opium cremations."
   But later in the 1800s, "the government of King Rama III began
importing opium from India and selling it by auction," according to
Cornell University's former Southeast Asia Program Director Thak
   "In the reign of Rama IV, opium use was restricted to the Chinese
community. Thais were not permitted to deal in or use opium. From that
time on, opium became associated with the rise of Chinese secret
societies," Mr. Tak wrote.
   During World War II, "U.S. Air Force aircraft flew large quantities
of opium from India" to Burma to pay local tribal guerrillas fighting
against Japan's occupation, British officer Ian Fellowes-Gordon said,
according to historian Bertil Lintner.
   "It was also necessary to enter the opium business," wrote U.S.
Office of Strategic Services Detachment 101's Commanding Officer in
Burma, Gen. William R. Peers, and his lieutenant Dean Brelis in their
book titled, "Behind the Burma Road: The Story of America's Most
Successful Guerrilla Force."
   "Opium was available to [U.S.] agents who used it [for] obtaining
information [or] buying their own escape.
   "If opium could be useful in achieving victory, the pattern was
clear. We would use opium," the American authors wrote.
   Thailand's profitable, 100-year-old government-run Opium Monopoly
meanwhile began having import problems.
   So Bangkok legalized some poppy growing in the north in 1947 by
allowing the Hmong, also known as Meo, to use their traditional opium
skills to raise the pod-headed stalks.
   In China, communist Chairman Mao Zedong banished opium after
achieving victory in 1949.
   But Southeast Asia's production rocketed because some of Chiang
Kai-shek's anti-communist, U.S.-backed Chinese Kuomintang (KMT)
guerrillas -- who lost their war against Mao -- fled into Burma, a
country now known as Myanmar.
   KMT rebels raised funds by growing opium which they continued after
settling in northern Thailand.
   In the 1950s, Thailand's U.S.-supported coup leader and military
dictator Gen. Sarit Thanarat, and his CIA-supplied rival Police Gen.
Phao Siyonon, competed to control the KMT's illegal opium exports.
   Anti-communist Gen. Phao "became the CIA's most important Thai
client," wrote Alfred W. McCoy in his book titled, "The Politics of
Heroin in Southeast Asia."
   "Phao protected KMT supply shipments [and] marketed their opium,"
Mr. McCoy wrote.
   Gen. Sarit, who ruled from 1957 to 1963, soon ousted Gen. Phao and
declared opium totally illegal in 1959, partly to please the U.S. and
other foreign powers.
   During America's wars against Laos and Vietnam in the 1960s and
70s, U.S.-backed corrupt officials in those Southeast Asian nations
made huge fortunes from opium and heroin while the CIA and regional
governments facilitated international smuggling with aircraft and
other assistance or ignored the evidence, according to Mr. McCoy.
   "Production of cheap, low-grade, number 3 heroin -- three to five
percent pure -- had started in the late 1950s when the Thai government
launched an intensive opium suppression campaign that forced most of
her opium habitués to switch to heroin," Mr. McCoy said.
   "By the early 1960s, large quantities of cheap number 3 heroin were
being refined in Bangkok and northern Thailand," he said.
   In South Vietnam under President Nguyen Van Thieu and Premier
Nguyen Cao Ky, "the U.S. Embassy as part of its unqualified support of
the Thieu-Ky regime, looked the other way when presented with evidence
that members of the regime were involved in the [American soldiers']
G.I. heroin traffic," McCoy said.