Government agencies are fighting to keep schoolchildren off 'yaa baa', the new narcotic to hit Bangkok, reports Matthew Pennington
Four children, none older than seven, lark around a disused car in Bangkok's Klong Toey slum, waiting to make a drugs deal.
Nitiya Promphochuenbun, 52, lives opposite in a wooden house adorned with anti-drugs posters. She has been fighting against narcotics abuse in this district by the Thai capital's port for 13 years. Right now, it's a losing battle.
"Just about all the families in my street are dealing in yaa baa," she says, referring to the meth-amphetamine which has become Thailand's narcotics nightmare. "Parents use the kids to peddle the drugs. It's safer for them and no one suspects a five-year-old."
Yaa baa floods into Thailand from neighbouring Burma, where heroin producers are diversifying into synthetic drugs, which are easier to make and offer bigger profits. It also has a wider client base, ranging from truckers to children.
Community leaders say drug dealing has become rife not only on the streets of Klong Toey but in secondary schools. It is a trade which police appear unable or unwilling to combat.
"We can't depend on the authorities and police so we have to help ourselves," said Prateep Ungsongtham, who leads a local charitable foundation which runs social projects and weekly anti-drugs marches through the community.
Abuse of yaa baa, which sells for about 70 baht (pound;1.20) per tablet, has grown in the past year all over Thailand, as many left jobless by the economic crisis have turned to drug dealing, making "speed" more available than ever before.
"Drug-users are getting younger," said Sriwunnapar Loasasiwuttanaphong, a youth worker on a United Nations' drug control project in this slum of 100,000 people. "Kids usually start with glue-sniffing, then move on to amphetamines from the age 10 or 11, but no one really knows how many kids are taking it," she said. One 15-year-old nicknamed "Ball" admitted he had been expelled from school three years ago for dealing in yaa baa. He used to sell a dozen pills a day.
Sorasit Sangprasert, deputy secretary-general of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board, said 10,000 schools had joined a government "white schools" project to promote anti-drugs messages, yet many were still wary of being open about the drugs menace.
"Part of the problem is that schools have been trying to protect their reputation. Staff fear that if they go public, they won't get promoted," he said.
The ministry has also set up a telephone hotline for students with drug problems, while a deputy education minister has appealed to any parents with information about narcotics in schools to contact him.
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