A police officer displays "yaba" tablets, or methamphetamine mixed with caffeine, for the media in front of the Narcotics Suppression Division in Bangkok on February 1, 2017. Photo: AFP / Lillian Suwanrumpha

China’s planned pan-Asia railway network, reaching from Kunming in the north to Singapore in the south, is a signature project in Beijing’s One Belt One Road (Obor) initiative.

The economic benefits, if the 3,900 km network connecting all mainland Southeast Asian states with the Middle Kingdom goes forth as planned, could be enormous. There may also be troublesome aspects to countenance too, however: namely an increase in cross-border drug trafficking.

Infrastructure upgrades facilitate the exchange of people, goods, and culture. Yet they can also empower criminals seeking easier and speedier access to new destinations. Transporting illicit drugs via high-speed rail is nothing new.

The Taiwan High Speed Rail line that runs the length of the island’s west coast is an established pipeline for drug runners. In China, arrests of drug traffickers on its high-speed rail system are not uncommon.

One of the latest and most curious cases involved a Chinese smuggler returning from Myanmar with a batch of hollowed-out dragon fruits containing 1,031.28 grams of methamphetamine tablets.

The planned network is currently only moving ahead on the central sections connecting Kunming, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore, with regional geopolitics stalling the eastern and western routes. Given its reach, this line is the most crucial, however.

The country that stands to benefit most is the landlocked, impoverished nation of Laos. An upland nation of 6.5 million people, it currently only has a very meager railway. With the central line in place, its leaders hope to make it a land-linked regional transit center.

Construction officially commenced in December 2016 for the Laotian portion of the line. Running from the China-Laos border to the capital, Vientiane, the route’s total length is 414 km, with bridges and tunnels comprising 62% of a line that traverses rough mountainous terrain.

There are to be 32 stations along the route, along which passenger trains will travel at 160-200 km per hour. The project will be completed in the year 2021. The Thai portion connecting Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima will also begin construction this year.

Laos is the focus here because it is the starting point of the Southeast Asian drug trade

High-speed rail suits individual drug runners perfectly, with passengers typically allowed 40 kg of luggage per person. At present, traveling from northern Laos to Bangkok takes close to 30 hours by automobile, and even longer during the rainy season. The Luang Namtha to Vientiane drive can be exceptionally draining due to the terrain. But with high-speed rail, a run from northern Laos to Bangkok will easily be reduced to a comfortable five to seven hours.

Laos is the focus here because it is the starting point of the Southeast Asian drug trade. The recent arrests of prominent Laotian drug lords confirmed the rising status of Laotian nationals as leader players in the regional trafficking web.

Alarmingly, the distribution network of Laotian drug lord Xaysana Keopimpha, mapped by the Thai Narcotic Suppression Bureau, followed almost the exact route of the central line. Drugs purchased from jungle depots near Laos’ border with Myanmar were then transported down to Vientiane before crossing into northeastern Thailand, Bangkok, and onward to the entire region.

Unfortunately, Laos has an underdeveloped anti-trafficking infrastructure. According to the US State Department, it is a major regional narcotics transit hub. Besides having porous borders, a security vacuum appears to exist in certain provinces.

The Lao police are underpaid and susceptible to corruption, while local elites – including allegedly relatives of former prime minister Thongsing Thammavong – are known to share ties with drug kingpins. Furthermore, in the absence of an existing railway system, Laos has no experience in railway security. It is the weakest link in the Southeast Asian anti-narcotics nexus.

While the pan-Asia railway project will move enormous amounts of people and goods across mainland Southeast Asia, it is clear there may be downsides too. Countries in the region can expect a rise in drug trafficking, and the international community must give special attention to Laos in order to nip it in the bud.

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