Still, the silent but formidable drug trade raged unabated across Asia. In the mountainous hinterland of Myanmar’s Shan State, hidden drug factories continued to churn out most of the region’s methamphetamine (meth). Clandestine “super labs” in southern China and smaller street laboratories in the Philippines added to the region’s growing drug problem, even as cocaine and meth flowed in from South America and the Golden Crescent near the Middle East—all to satisfy the burgeoning demand for drugs in Asia.
Asia Pacific is both a destination and transit point for drugs such as ecstasy, erimin pills, and meth. The region has witnessed an explosion in the variety of and demand for drugs in recent years, from plant-based substances such as cocaine and heroin to the rise of synthetic drugs (e.g., meth) and the nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals and prescription drugs (e.g., cough medicine).
Operated by a complex, hidden network of drug syndicates stretching across the region, these drugs are reaching users at an unimaginable scale. A carefully orchestrated series of transfers across land and water borders gets these drugs into regional markets such as Malaysia and Thailand. While a portion of these drugs is intended to reach local consumers, other drugs are repackaged in these countries before being shipped on to the next destination.
While the addictive nature and drastic health repercussions of these drugs are well-known to most, the wider causes and consequences of the drug trade in Asia often go unacknowledged when people talk about drugs. Drug producers, traffickers, and consumers operate and are caught in a web of political and social forces—insurgencies, forced displacement, and economic vulnerability among many others—making solving the region’s drug troubles a complex problem. Asia’s drug problem is a vicious cycle creating dangerous consequences for the region’s stability, from enabling other forms of criminality to placing heavy burdens on national health systems.
The Golden Triangle—among the world’s most prolific meth-producing regions—sits at the heart of Asia’s drug crisis.
How did the Golden Triangle become a drug hotspot?
First coined by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the term “Golden Triangle” refers to the mountainous region that stretches across three countries: Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. For many decades, opium and the heroin produced from it formed the Golden Triangle’s lifeline, with innocuous-looking poppy flowers blanketing the region’s hillsides.
When the Kuomintang arrived in the Wa area of Myanmar in 1949, the production, taxation, trading, and transportation of opium grew into a larger, more efficient production and circulation ecosystem. However, under significant global pressure and the desire to alleviate poverty through modernisation, the three Golden Triangle governments decided to eradicate opium cultivation in the early twenty-first century. Thailand committed to ending opium cultivation by 2000, Laos by 2006, and Myanmar by 2014. Soon, opium production in the Golden Triangle had seen a sharp fall, from around 900 metric tons in 2003 to 450 metric tons in 2004.
As opium cultivation declined and heroin production became less profitable in Asia, Afghanistan soon eclipsed the Golden Triangle as the world’s largest heroin production centre. The Golden Triangle’s ecosystem now needed an alternative source of revenue. Many livelihoods depended on the opium supply chain; farmers harvested opium to offset the annual rice deficit, while local authorities relied on the opium tax as a main source of revenue. Businesses were buying and trading opium like any other commodity.
With livelihoods at risk, the Golden Triangle economy soon transitioned to meth production. Unlike opium, meth is illegal to produce, buy, or sell in the Wa area. But the Wa government was faced with a dire financial situation; meth production offered a suitable alternative.
The Golden Triangle’s meth economy received a huge boost as Thai producers flocked to the region. Meth comes in two forms: crystal meth (syabu) and its caffeine-laced tablet form (yaba); the latter was first produced in Bangkok in the 1970s as a “working man’s drug”; yaba kept workers in labour intensive industries awake for long periods, boosting their productivity and earning power. But such productivity also came at a price: both syabu and yaba are highly addictive, and as Thai authorities began recognising their dangers and cracking down on the industry, producers of these drugs fled into the Golden Triangle.
There, they found a welcoming environment, seamlessly integrating into the Golden Triangle’s drug ecosystem. Almost immediately, meth production flourished in the region. By 2018, annual meth seizures in East and Southeast Asia had reached 120,000 kilograms—a trend that is expected to continue increasing.
What drives meth production in the Golden Triangle?
Drug production in the Golden Triangle is connected to the insurgency and oppression currently taking place in Myanmar’s coastal Rakhine State. The Arakan Army, accused of abuses against the minority Rohingya population, is also allegedly involved in smuggling weapons into Rakhine and yaba into Bangladesh. Other armed groups, such as the United Wa State Army and ethnic splinter groups such as the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, have also fuelled the growth of meth production in the country.
As transnational organised criminal groups collude with nonstate armed groups and even government authorities, Myanmar’s unstable political situation weakens governance in the country. Nonstate armed groups continue to proliferate while tightly controlling autonomous territories such as Kutkai. These territories’ economies often centre on illicit activities such as drug production, which fund the political causes of the autonomous armed groups. Hidden deep within its valleys, the Golden Triangle’s super laboratories are well-protected by armed groups as they produce meth at a massive scale.
With high drug demand and a favorable supply environment, the drug epidemic in the region is grave, though it is also only beginning. The underground criminal networks that coordinate all regional drug movements are growing stronger, interlacing with other forms of organised crime and reaching beyond the region itself. With profits of roughly US$60 billion a year, drug syndicate networks manipulate drug consumer behaviour by flooding the market with drugs, driving prices down and demand up.
Meanwhile, drug addicts continue to enjoy unhampered access to their supply. Low-level criminals act as ant traffickers, distributing drugs while continuously being chased by enforcement authorities. Organized crime groups and law enforcement agencies in Asia Pacific engage in a never-ending game of “whack-a-mole” along the drug supply chain. More often than not, these elusive trafficking operations manage to escape enforcement efforts, only to appear undetected elsewhere in the region.
Asia’s enforcement assets are currently under equipped to contain the massive breadth and reach of the region’s drug syndicate network. In terms of meth alone, agencies in East and Southeast Asia seized roughly 115 tonnes of meth in 2019—though this does not include any data from China, which seizes roughly 30 tonnes each year. Even more worrying, this figure represents only 10 to 15 percent of the total drug volume circulating around the region.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse. Despite shut borders, drug supply lines remain lucrative as drug addicts use alternative avenues—such as home delivery transfers and online orders—to obtain their drug supply. Social distancing measures have forced people to stay indoors, producing joblessness and leading many to further drug abuse. While the pandemic’s early days temporarily stalled the drug supply chain, trafficking activities have quickly rebounded with new distribution methods.
The true causes and costs of drugs in Asia
The rise of drug trafficking into Asia is extremely concerning, but the scale of its impact on human security is even harder to fathom.
In Indonesia, amphetamine use rose from 850,000 users in 2015 to 1 million in 2016. In the Philippines, 850,000 people aged 10–69 years were meth users in 2015. A 2019 survey in Thailand reported that 653,000 people—or 1.3 percent of the population aged 12–65—were yaba users in the previous year; 372,000 people (0.7 percent of the population) were crystal meth users. In Australia in 2016, the number of users of amphetamines in the previous year was estimated at 280,000, or 1.4 percent of people aged 14 and older.
Among the thousands of drug users in Asia, many are driven to substances by social disadvantages such as low educational attainment, joblessness, financial instability, and even poverty. In fact, sustained drug abuse often makes them more vulnerable to these forces. Joblessness caused by a financial recession or a pandemic, for example, can lead to higher levels of drug use and other high-risk behaviours, further pushing people into a vicious cycle of lower social mobility, financial difficulties, and even family problems—all of which contribute to drug consumption and addiction.
Drug trafficking continues to endanger the lives of many here in Asia. Farmers, fishermen, businesses, labourers, irregular migrants, and even young adults alike have fallen in the grip of this sinister trade in different ways. Drug producers and traffickers in communities find themselves in a particular dilemma, having come to rely on drug trafficking as their main source of livelihood.
A look at the fate of Rohingya migrants shows how drug trafficking offers them a lifeline, but one that comes with high risks. Having fled their homes in Rakhine State to Bangladesh, where they live under dire and ever-shifting economic conditions, many Rohingya resort to becoming drug mules, moving yaba from locations such as the Kutupalong Refugee Camp to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. For every thousand pills transported, a smuggler stands to earn up to US$60. Without a safe and stable environment, Rohingya migrants turn to the dangerous and illicit drug trade in their constant struggle to support themselves and their families.
Over time, some Rohingya become expert smugglers, gaining familiarity with border checkpoints, hidden routes in the hills, and drug concealment methods. Making the 40 kilometre journey from Kutupalong to Cox’s Bazar, smuggled yaba in hand, is a daunting task. Rohingya smugglers have learnt to hide the pills inside their shoes or stick them inside their belts to sneak them through borders.
It is clear that drug abuse and trafficking are not just a matter of personal harm; they can also be the result of political instability and violent conflict. Studies have shown that trauma from armed conflict and political unrest are the most frequently cited reasons for increased drug use. A study conducted in Myanmar’s Kachin State shows that drug-use disorders are one of the main concerns of displaced people, a result of the high levels of stress from a lack of future prospects and depression from the ongoing conflict. With an increasing number of drug users living amidst political violence in Rakhine State, resolving conflict in the region becomes even more difficult.
Shipping drugs from the Golden Triangle to Southeast Asia
After drug production exploded in the Golden Triangle in the 1990s, the region’s drug trafficking routes became more diversified. Today, drugs seep forth from Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand, crossing south towards Indonesia, east towards China, and west towards Bangladesh. Traditional smuggling routes, including sea routes that had once played a role in smuggling weapons from Southern Thailand to the insurgency in Aceh during the early 2000s, now play host to fishing vessels carrying drugs. As both a maritime and land region, Asia and its unique geographical features offer drug syndicates various ways to ply their trade.
Crystal meth departs Myanmar’s southern coasts on fishing vessels that venture down the Andaman Sea, hugging Myanmar’s coastline until they reach the southernmost tip of the country. From here, crystal meth can either cross into Thailand through the illegal jetties along the Myawaddy River or continue its journey south towards the Malaysian border. Upon reaching Peninsular Malaysia, meth is then transported by vehicles such as luxury cars to warehouses, where it is divided into smaller packages bound for other destinations. These packages can then be brought to coastal areas, where they are transported, on fishing vessels or human-smuggling boats, across the Strait of Malacca to Indonesia’s island of Sumatra.
The region’s undulating, unprotected coastlines, vast expanse of sea, and busy waterways make it hard for enforcement authorities to track and police these carefully planned transfers. Identifying a trafficking vessel in the wide Andaman Sea or Gulf of Thailand—or even the choked Straits of Malacca—is like finding a needle in a haystack. As enforcement authorities learn to control drug movements through land borders and impose entry restrictions due to COVID-19, drug syndicates are turning to the region’s waterways, which are much harder to monitor.
Asia’s drug problem requires collective effort to fix
Drug trafficking in Asia is moving at an unprecedented pace. As Asia adapts to a new norm under the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for drug use continues to escalate. Meanwhile, drug syndicates operate seamlessly, undeterred by the efforts of the enforcement authorities endlessly chasing them. Technology and home delivery transfers also offer drug syndicates various new opportunities to push drugs further along the supply chain.
The drug crisis in Asia is no longer a household problem; it has transformed into a dangerous epidemic with deep roots in the region. As enforcement authorities struggle to catch up to drug syndicates, the underlying social, political, and economic forces driving their populations to drugs remain. Making real, lasting change happen in the region’s drug epidemic asks for the efforts of not just individuals and enforcers but also that of entire countries and societies.