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Precursor chemicals used to make illicit drugs such as methamphetamine, ketamine, heroin and fentanyl seized by Myanmar police and military
Image: Reuters/Myanmar Police/UNODC

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

Rodion Ebbighausen
May 19, 2020

The war on drugs looks like a losing battle in Southeast Asia. Although authorities carry out big busts, prices remain low and demand is high. Experts say more cross-border cooperation is necessary.


Police in Myanmar this week announced the largest synthetic drug seizure on record in Southeast Asia. Between February and April, security forces seized more than 200 million tablets of methamphetamine, 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of crystal meth, 300 kilograms of heroin and 3,750 kilograms of liquid 3-methylfentanyl (3MF).

"The amount of 3MF is truly incredible. 3MF is 10 times stronger than fentanyl, which is 100 times stronger than morphine. That makes it equivalent to a few thousand tons of morphine — or several billion doses. That has to be for global supply, not just regional," Myanmar expert Richard Horsey told DW.

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

The Golden Triangle covers parts of Myanmar's Shan State, Thailand and Laos. The shaky balance of power in the region 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, such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), or the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), have been active in the drug trade for decades. They also 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 get their financing through drug trafficking.

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

A report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates the market volume of the amphetamine trade throughout Southeast Asia to be $30 to 60 billion (€26 to 52 billion). In comparison, 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 to what happened with the cocaine trade in some South American countries. Parts of the police, military, politics and administration, even monasteries and monks, are all involved in the 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 been gaining market share for years.

The production of methamphetamines has several advantages over opium cultivation.

Methamphetamine production is not dependent on the harvest cycles of the opium poppy and there is no need for large cultivation areas, only laboratories.

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

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

Infografik - Meth market size in Asia Pacific - EN

These laboratories produce high-grade crystalline methamphetamine, known 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 mixture 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 stronger and self-confident. The potential for 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 now used for the methamphetamine trade."

However, the places of origin have changed. Meth for the Japanese and South Korean markets used to mainly come out of China. Today, according to the UNODC, "Southeast Asia is the main source of 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, has become the main route for the drug trade to South Asia.

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

Busts are a 'drop in the ocean'

The security forces in the region regularly carry out raids, seizures and closures of drug laboratories, such as 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 with US

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

"The problem is not necessarily a lack of 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 need a "creative approach," Horsey said.

Lawsuit against Duterte's drug war

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 mainly laundered in casinos that are visited by paying customers from China in the border regions. The cash eventually ends up parked in bank accounts in Hong Kong, Macau or Singapore.

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

Another tactic would be to monitor the raw materials needed to produce synthetic drugs. Although Myanmar is the largest producer in the region, it alone cannot produce the necessary raw materials for meth, such as pseudoephedrine.

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

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

However, this strategy does not seem to have been fully implemented. As Horsey points out, in recent years there has not been a single confiscation of raw materials at the border between China and Myanmar.

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

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