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On Thailand’s Burmese border, young monks on horseback battle the scourge of opium, heroin, and methamphetamine trafficking with a not-so-secret weapon: karma.

Photos by Jack Picone
By Julia Haslett

Thailand’s northern border with Burma is relentlessly, exhaustively porous: refugees flee over it to escape persecution from Burma’s military junta and land-grabbing drug lords, while drug runners transport opium, heroin, and methamphetamines across it into Thailand.
      Meanwhile, a Thai Buddhist monk and his young novices travel it by horseback—heading in the opposite direction.
     The boys of the Golden Horse Monastery are unlikely drug warriors, righteous crusaders fighting the epidemic ravaging

In and around the Golden Horse Monastery, near Chiang Rai, Thailand, and the Burma border, 2003.
Abbot Khru Ba shows off his tattoos, which indicate his stage and level of experience at the monastery.
their country with faith, bravado, and martial-arts know-how.
      Located on the edge not far from the Thai city of Chiang Rai, the monastery is essentially an orphanage. Most of the boys are from Burma. “They saw their mothers raped and their villages burned,” says photographer Jack Picone, who shot the photos shown on these pages. “Others were abandoned by drug-addicted parents or families whose land was seized by the United Wa State Army to grow narcotics.”
      Here, in the relative calm of the monastery, the young monks, who range in age from seven to 16, rise at 2 a.m., as the first call to prayer ricochets off the surrounding limestone peaks. Their days follow a strict that includes calisthenics, meditation, study, and collection of alms for the monastery from nearby communities. Abbot Khru Ba, a former Thai kickboxing champion and soldier, combines traditional Buddhist activities with training in horsemanship
“THEY SAW THEIR MOTHERS RAPED AND THEIR VILLAGES BURNED. OTHERS WERE ABANDONED BY DRUG-ADDICTED PARENTS OR FAMILIES WHOSE LAND WAS SEIZED TO GROW NARCOTICS.” and kickboxing to prepare the novices for their other, less conventional calling, across the border.
     Originally a rebel group seeking an autonomous state for the Wa ethnic minority in Burma, the United Wa State Army, granted de facto independence in the late ’80s, is now the largest drug-producing organization in Southeast Asia. Like its Burmese government allies, the UWSA forcibly recruits children into its militia, which brings drugs into Thailand. In recent years, the UWSA has begun producing methamphetamines in addition to the traditional opiates. “Methamphetamine or yaba”—which literally translates as “crazy pill”—“is a very cheap way of getting high,” says Picone. It is consequently having a devastating effect on the Thai people in a way heroin and opium never did.
     Khru Ba couldn’t just stand by and watch the

In and around the Golden Horse Monastery, near Chiang Rai, Thailand, and the Burma border, 2003.
Boy monks riding bareback through the jungle as they cross into Burma on a mission to track down Wa drug traffickers.
flow of illegal drugs pass in front of his monastery, he told Picone—and so he took matters into his own hands. With the tacit approval of the Supreme Patriarch (Thailand’s Buddhist leader), whose office helps support the monastery, Khru Ba and his young monks regularly venture into Burma to confront members of the UWSA. Armed with nothing but religious conviction, the monks rely on the power of their words to persuade traffickers to stop contributing to drug addiction. “When we meet the Wa, I try to engage them in dialogue,” says Khru Ba. “Why do you do this? I ask them. How would you feel if these drugs were being consumed by your own sons and daughters?”
     The charismatic Khru Ba has some degree of protection against physical harm. “Buddhist monks are deeply revered in Thai society,” explains Picone. “It’s very bad karma if you attack a monk.” Even so, Khru Ba and his novices have

In and around the Golden Horse Monastery, near Chiang Rai, Thailand, and the Burma border, 2003.
A rare break—novices relax on their horses.
had to literally kickbox their way out of hostile situations, and once the abbot was wounded by a hand grenade.
    But Khru Ba feels he has no other choice. “I have to live my life in an honest and direct way,” he says. “My life is like a candle and provides light for those around me. If it blows out, this is fate, and nothing can be done about fate.”

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In and around the Golden Horse Monastery, near Chiang Rai, Thailand, and the Burma border, 2003.
Novices listen to Khru Ba During a Buddhist meditation ritual.