Thai court jails veteran Golden Triangle drug runner Laota Seanlee

Laota Seanlee being escorted into the Criminal Court in Bangkok on Dec 13, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (AFP) - A Thai court on Wednesday (Dec 13) sentenced a notorious 76-year-old drug trafficker to life in prison after he was allegedly caught trying to sell 20kg of crystal meth in the Golden Triangle drug producing region.

Laota Seanlee - a former anti-Communist guerilla turned drug runner who famously opened an eponymous coffee store in Thailand's far north - was nabbed with several of his relatives by undercover officers in a sting operation last year.

The rugged Golden Triangle zone - which also includes parts of Myanmar Laos and southern China - is home to some of the world's most prolific drug producers, with cartels moving heroin and methamphetamine across Asia.

Yet high-profile arrests are rare.

Laota, who hails from the Lisu ethnic minority, had been detained multiple times over the decades but the authorities never managed to make major drug charges stick - until now.

On Wednesday Bangkok's criminal court sentenced him to life in prison for selling 'ice' to undercover police and possessing 20kg of the high-purity narcotic in his compound - charges he confessed to.

"The court ruled to give him the death penalty for possession and intention to sell 20 kilogrammes of ice but due to his confession the sentence was reduced to life in prison and 2.5 million baht (S$104,000) fine," the judge said.

Laota's wife was also sentenced to 25 years in prison while his two sons, who denied helping facilitate the drug sales, were handed the death penalty, a sentence that is rarely carried out in Thailand.

The sons, one of whom was a local administrator in Chiang Mai province, will appeal, according to Laota's lawyer.

At the time of his arrest, some commentators expressed surprise that such a wily survivor of the drug trade had allowed himself to be caught so red-handed.

In a 2011 interview with the Bangkok Post Laota shared details of his remarkable life.

He said he joined the anti-communist Kuomintang as a child soldier and rose up through the ranks. Like many Kuomintang cadres, he later fought for Thailand against communist insurgents in the 1970s in exchange for sanctuary.

He is widely thought to have had ties to Asia's most notorious drug trafficker Khun Sa, a Myanmar-based rebel leader who was one of the world's most wanted men until his death in 2007.

In recent years Laota opened a coffee store - Lao Ta Coffee - visited by more intrepid travellers journeying across Thailand's north.

During its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s the Golden Triangle was home to the world's top opium market in Myanmar - a designation it lost to the Afghan farmers who now dominate the trade.

But the region is now the heart of Asia's methamphetamine production, with warlords pumping out record numbers of caffeine-laced "yaba" meth pills and the more addictive crystallised 'ice' version.

Thai police have made record seizures. But those arrested tend to be low level mules whilst there has been no rise in street prices, showing the cartels can easily make up for busts.

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