BANGKOK: Six drug traffickers from the notorious Wa tribe died in a late night shoot-out with a Thai army patrol near the rugged Golden Triangle border region, officers said Thursday (Dec 8).
The fighting broke out after the men, who were travelling through the remote and mountainous region by foot, refused to stop for a search.
"Six drugs traffickers were killed," said Jiradech Kamolpetch, the commander of the border task force, revising down an initial toll of seven dead that was released by authorities in error.
"There were 20 people in this group," he told AFP, adding that soldiers and police were in "hot pursuit" of the remaining suspects in Thailand's Chiang Mai province.
Thai officials seized 554,000 methamphetamine tablets, approximately 30 kilogrammes (66 pounds) of heroine and two firearms from the men after the gunfight, according to another military officer who requested anonymity.
He said authorities suspect the men were ethnic Wa - a minority based chiefly in northwestern Myanmar. Backed by a powerful rebel militia, the Wa control a large swathe of territory in Myanmar where they are accused of running a narcotics empire.
Some Wa communities have also settled in northern Thailand, which forms part of the notorious Golden Triangle - a drug-producing zone where the two countries meet Laos. Long a hub for illicit opium trade, the Golden Triangle has more recently become a hotbed of methamphetamine production as demand for the drug soars in Asia.
The latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report said global amphetamine seizures reached a new peak of more than 170 tonnes in 2014, with Southeast Asia, East Asia and North America the three major markets.
Decades of harsh drug laws and an attempted "war" on narcotics has left Thai prisons overflowing with offenders, often caught in possession of small amounts of narcotics.
Senior Thai figures have unexpectedly admitted that the country's tough approach has failed to stem the scourge of drug addiction and have floated decriminalisation of meth as a solution.