The shocking methamphetamine trade in ASEAN

This file photo shows Myanmar law enforcement authorities burning seized illegal drugs worth US$187 million, marking the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking in Yangon on 26 June, 2018. (Ye Aung Thu / AFP Photo)

Porous borders and a lack of enforcement contributed to the record seizure of methamphetamine in East and Southeast Asia last year.

Drug trade in the Golden Triangle – a region where the borders of Myanmar, Lao and Thailand meet – is booming thanks to an increase in transnational organised crime groups operating, manufacturing and trafficking methamphetamine and other drugs in the region, according to a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Substantial quantities of precursor chemicals (chemicals used in the illegal manufacture of narcotic drugs) for methamphetamine have been continuously diverted and trafficked within the region stated the report published on Monday titled ‘Synthetic Drugs in East and South-East Asia: Trends and Patterns of Amphetamine-type Stimulants and New Psychoactive Substances’.

Known as an opium and heroin production hub since the 1970s, the lawless 950,000 square kilometre Golden Triangle region lost its notoriety as the global centre for manufacturing drugs to Afghanistan in the early 21st century.

However, drug producers have since shifted their attention to methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs to become the world’s leading exporter – with most of the trade centred around Myanmar’s Shan State. 

Seizures of methamphetamine in the region in 2017 came in at 82 tons, which was a record at the time. However, last week’s UN report noted that the latest available data for 2018 – confirmed by countries in the region mostly by the third quarter of the year – shows the amount seized had increased to 116 tons. The amount is an alarming 210 percent increase from five years ago.

The report took into account seizures from the 10 ASEAN countries and China (including Hong Kong), Japan and South Korea.

Although the increase in methamphetamine seizures has been significant across the region, it is more pronounced in the Mekong region – Cambodia, south-west China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Home to a population of 300 million, the methamphetamine trade there is estimated to be worth over US$40 billion a year.

In Thailand alone 515 million methamphetamine tablets were seized in 2018 – 17 times the total amount of the drug seized a decade ago.

The UNODC report notes that there has been a strong shift in the drug market in East and Southeast Asia – from opiates to methamphetamine. With the exception of Vietnam, all 13 countries in the region reported methamphetamine as their primary drug of concern in 2018. A decade ago, only five countries reported that to be the case. Meanwhile, there has been a 40 percent decrease in the estimated amount of opium produced in Myanmar from 2013 to 2018.

Meth seizures in ASEAN & East Asia
Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Decrease in prices

Despite the shocking increase in seizures, methamphetamine prices have been decreasing in recent years which might be indicative of an oversupply. In some states in Myanmar, yaba – pills created by mixing methamphetamine with various adulterants – range from around US$0.10 to US$0.30 each.

In Vietnam, authorities in 2017 reported a price of US$8,000 for one kilogram (kg) of methamphetamine thought to have originated from the Golden Triangle; down from the US$13,500 reported in 2016.

Also surprising is the decrease in price is happening in the face of increased raids on clandestine methamphetamine laboratories. 

A record 526 clandestine methamphetamine laboratories were dismantled in East and Southeast Asia in 2015 and the number has been decreasing every year since then with the preliminary figure for 2018 representing a 75 percent decrease from 2015.

However, the record number of seizures combined with the low market price for these drugs may point towards the presence of undetected large-scale clandestine manufacturing facilities or clusters of small-scale manufacturing facilities.

According to an estimate by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), seizure rates in the region are below 10 percent; meaning the 116 tons seized last year could just be the tip of the iceberg.

More cooperation needed

With regional connectivity initiatives such as the ASEAN Economic Community and Greater Mekong Sub-Region Transport Master Plan including infrastructure upgrades and other programs to promote more efficient movement between borders, it is vital that borders are safeguarded from illicit trafficking.

Key to ensuring this are partnerships such as the one which Thailand and UNODC initiated last month to advance border management under Thailand's ASEAN 2019 Chairmanship.

According to the UNODC, the foundation for the border management agenda will start by developing a roadmap in coming months that will be presented at the ASEAN Summit in June – with the eventual aim of helping ASEAN policymakers and border management agencies improve border management, cross-border cooperation and operational capacities in support of regional security and economic agendas. 

“Thailand has benefited greatly from the creation of the ASEAN Community and the business opportunities that have come with it, but we have also experienced an increase in transnational organised crime challenges at the same time,” Suriya Chindawongse, Director General of the ASEAN Department of the Thailand Ministry of Foreign Affairs told UNODC’s website.

“Border management needs to be part of the solution to transnational challenges the region is faced with." 

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