Is Southeast Asia's drug trade too large to control?

05 Jun 2020 10:20 AM
Police in Myanmar this week announced the major synthetic drug seizure on record in Southeast Asia. Between February and April, security forces seized a lot more than 200 million tablets of methamphetamine, 500 kilograms (1,000 lbs.) of crystal meth, 300 kilograms of heroin, and 3,750 kilograms of liquid methyl-fentanyl (3MF).

"The number of 3MF is actually incredible. 3MF is 10 times better than fentanyl, which is 100 times better than morphine. That means it is equal to a few thousand tons of morphine - or several billion doses. That must be for global supply, not only regional," Myanmar expert Richard Horsey told DW.

The drugs are thought to have comes from Myanmar's Shan State, which is section of the so-called Golden Triangle. The impassable mountain region provides ideal conditions for drug production and trafficking.

The Golden Triangle covers elements of Myanmar's Shan State, Thailand and Laos. The shaky balance of power in your community provides what the International Crisis Group calls "stable insecurity."

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The lawless jungle

For example, militant factions of ethnic groups in Myanmar, including the United Wa State Army (UWSA), or the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), have already been mixed up in drug trade for decades. In addition they control the border region with China, Laos and Thailand.

In Thailand and Laos, on the other hand, security forces have only limited control over the remote and sometimes jungle-covered mountains. Borders are permeable, and border controls in Myanmar, for example, are carried out by the same groups that obtain financing through drug trafficking.

These jungle highlands are poorly developed economically and a normal economy doesn't have a chance against the immense profits of the drug trade.

A written report by the US Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates the marketplace volume of the amphetamine trade throughout Southeast Asia to be $30 to 60 billion (€26 to 52 billion). Compared, the World Bank estimates Myanmar's gross domestic product in 2018 was almost $70 billion.

The immense amount of drug money also corrupts institutions, similar from what happened with the cocaine trade in a few South American countries. Elements of the authorities, military, politics and administration, even monasteries and monks, are mixed up in Southeast Asian drug trade.

Drugs for every market
Traditionally, the Golden Triangle region has been notorious for the cultivation of opium and the production of heroin. But methamphetamines have already been gaining market share for years.

The production of methamphetamines has several advantages over opium cultivation.

Methamphetamine production isn't reliant on the harvest cycles of the opium poppy and you don't have for large cultivation areas, only laboratories.

Laboratories could be made mobile and moved if necessary. In recent years, for example, there's been large-scale movement of laboratories from China across the border to Southeast Asian countries, partly because of China's intensified action against the illicit drug trade.

Read more: Thailand's war on drugs targets meth from Myanmar

These laboratories produce high-grade crystalline methamphetamine, referred to as "Crystal Meth," which is smuggled and sold in rich countries like Australia, Japan and South Korea.

For markets in poorer nations, labs produce "Yaba" or "Yama," which is a cheap combination of caffeine and methamphetamine sold as a pill. Yaba is popular in Southeast Asia and South Asia, especially in Bangladesh.

Yama suppresses fatigue, hunger and pain. Users become euphoric and feel more robust and self-confident. The prospect of dependence is considerable. Side effects include personality changes, psychosis and paranoia.

The 'drug highway' to South Asia
The trade routes used by cartels are largely based on the old opium trade routes. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) writes: "The same routes that rebels used to drag opium and heroin through the Golden Triangle hills are actually used for the methamphetamine trade."

However, the places of origin have changed. Meth for japan and South Korean markets used to mainly emerge from China. Today, in line with the UNODC, "Southeast Asia is the key way to obtain methamphetamine seized in Japan in 2018. Southeast Asia is the hub of the methamphetamine trade in Asia."

Read more: Bangladesh launches 'Philippine-style' war on drugs

Myanmar's western Rakhine State, a conflict-torn region where the Rohingya were driven out and the ethnic rebel group Arakan Army (AA) is fighting for independence, is becoming the primary route for the drug trade to South Asia.

Richard Horsey, the International Crisis Group's expert on Myanmar, said: "Rakhine State has turned into a kind of drug highway towards South Asia, especially Bangladesh."

Busts certainly are a 'drop in the ocean'
The security forces in your community regularly perform raids, seizures and closures of drug laboratories, including the mega-bust from this year. However, according to Horsey, this amounts to a drop of water in the ocean.

Read more: China jails Fentanyl smugglers after joint probe around

"For years, the seizures have already been rising, however the price is falling. This is a clear sign that production keeps growing faster than demand," Horsey said.

"The problem is not necessarily too little political will, but a lack of strategic ideas," he added.

The governments in Southeast Asia couldn't win a "battle of materiel" against the immense profits of the drug trade. They desire a "creative approach," Horsey said.

Follow the money
One method the expert points out is to employ a group of specialists to follow the money trail.

As the UNODC also reports, drug money is principally laundered in casinos that are visited by paying customers from China in the border regions. The cash eventually eventually ends up parked in bank accounts in Hong Kong, Macau or Singapore.

Horsey said tracking drug money would be a much more promising method of uncovering cartels than conducting one jungle raid after another.

Another tactic is always to monitor the raw materials had a need to produce synthetic drugs. Although Myanmar may be the largest producer in your community, it alone cannot produce the necessary recycleables for meth, such as for example pseudoephedrine.

Read more: Netherlands: The possible consequences of liberal drugs policies

Recycleables produced on an industrial scale come almost exclusively from Chinese factories. The UNODC is definitely calling for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries in China and Thailand to cooperate more closely with authorities in production countries.

However, this strategy will not seem to have already been fully implemented. As Horsey highlights, in recent years there's not been an individual confiscation of recycleables at the border between China and Myanmar.

"China has been very successful to summarize down drug laboratories in China. Beijing can be taking action against drug trafficking and exchanging intelligence information with neighboring countries. But closer cooperation is vital if we're to get the situation under control."