Opium revival in Golden Triangle

Opium revival in Golden Triangle
An officer packing away methamphetamine.

Opium production in South-east Asia's Golden Triangle that spans Laos, Thailand and Myanmar has gone up for the eighth year in a row, a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said.

Continuing grinding poverty in remote hilly areas, increasing connectivity between regions, a massive market in China and the absence of state control over large parts of territory run by well-armed militias, is fuelling the return of opium.

And experts are warning that worse is to come.

Major, well-funded transnational criminal groups that run the drug trade, are poised to take advantage of increasing connectivity between ASEAN member states and China, they say.

In 2012, ASEAN member states agreed on the goal of a "Drug Free ASEAN 2015" but the reality is far different.

The production of methamphetamine in the region is booming. And, the UNODC report said, opium poppy cultivation - for heroin - in Myanmar and Laos rose to 63,800ha this year compared to 61,200ha last year.

ASEAN states, heading towards greater connectivity and integration as they move towards an ASEAN community by the next year end, need to sharply enhance security arrangements to deal with the drug threat, Mr Jeremy Douglas, regional representative of UNODC, said at the release of the agency's report yesterday.

"The Golden Triangle is the geographic centre of the Greater Mekong Subregion, and plans are well under way to expand transport connections and relax trade barriers and border controls, including around opium producing areas," he wrote in the report Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2014 - Lao PDR, Myanmar.

"The organised networks that benefit from South-east Asia's illicit drug trade are very well-positioned to take advantage of regional integration," he wrote.

Precursor chemicals needed to process the opium into heroin, are smuggled mostly from Vietnam across Laos and into Myanmar's Shan State. The chemicals are already being transported by the tens of tonnes across the Vietnam-Lao and Lao-Myanmar border apparently with no problem, Mr Douglas said.

Still, the heroin output of the Golden Triangle does not meet the demand of China's estimated more than 1.3 million heroin users. Some of that demand is filled by heroin from Afghanistan.

Based on the average price of heroin in South-east Asia, the trade in opiates and heroin in the region is estimated to exceed US$16.3 billion (S$21.2 billion).

But taken together with methamphetamines, the drug trade in the Golden Triangle, South-east Asia and East Asia - even without precursor chemicals and marijuana - is "conservatively estimated at well over US$30 billion a year in sales", Mr Douglas said.

Security analysts also point to a critical element of the regional drug trade - the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which commands vast territories in Myanmar's Shan state, bordering China.

The UWSA has had a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government since 1989, which leaves it in total control of its territory.

The Myanmar government's authority in UWSA territory is virtually nil. This has allowed the UWSA, analysts say, to become one of the world's largest drug producers.

"The UWSA's commanders produce the overwhelming bulk of amphetamine type stimulants, and indeed heroin, which is flooding the region," said Mr Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based analyst for IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.

"What we are looking at is an administrative black hole between Myanmar's Shan State and China," said Mr Davis.

The UWSA has by some estimates, an army of around 20,000 equipped with modern weapons, possibly including surface-to-air missiles. It also has a web of business interests in mining and natural resources, and even in commercial retail. UWSA territory has its own power supply and uses China's telecom networks.

"That area is a free zone where basically anything goes, and there is great concern," Mr Douglas acknowledged. "At some point it is going to have to be dealt with."


This article was first published on Dec 09, 2014.
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