The Golden Triangle is an area of about 950,000 square kilometers that overlaps the mountains of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. Large quantities of methamphetamine are produced here along with opium grown in poor parts of Shan State, which is turned into heroin and smuggled to countries throughout the region. Photo: iStock

Governments in Southeast Asia should be targeting the heads of major drug cartels believed to be raking in huge sums of money – “more than [the GDP of] some countries in the region” – from a vast trade in methamphetamine and opium made or grown in the infamous Golden Triangle region in northeast Myanmar, rather than arresting and jailing hundreds of small drug users, a top UN official has said.

Jeremy Douglas, head of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime in Southeast Asia, said the Golden Triangle was well-known for the large amount of opium grown in parts of Shan State hit hard by decades of ethnic conflict, but recent years had seen a shift to mass production of methamphetamine and ‘ice’ (or crystal meth), with large quantities of precursor chemicals brought in from India and China.

The trade in methamphetamine (known as ‘yaba’ in some countries) and ‘ice’ had become entrenched after starting at low prices and these drugs were now available all over Myanmar, Thailand and in many neighboring states, he said. Authorities made regular seizures of the illicit drugs “but we think the market is significantly under-estimated – the seizures are the tip of an iceberg.”

Transnational drug syndicates were overseeing “industrial-scale production” of methamphetamine with “labs producing hundreds or thousands of kilos in a cycle,” he said.

“Crystal meth is very addictive and does a lot of harm to users. There are also impacts of an economic nature. In parts of Shan State it’s a drug economy with thousands of opium growers and traffickers. But the production of methamphetamine is much more lucrative – there are only several dozen involved in production [in mobile labs] and distribution.”

UNODC estimated that the drug cartels were making “$30-35 billion a year – just in methamphetamine and heroin/opium”, Douglas said. “This is big business.

“Very large and well-financed organized crime groups are targeting specific regions or parts of northern Myanmar because this region has huge [wealth] disparity,” he said.

The cartels were often involved in two or three countries and moved operations very quickly – “this month Cambodia, next month maybe the Philippines.”

An old man holds opium poppies, which are grown in poor areas of Shan State in northeast Myanmar. Photo: iStock

Police and justice systems overloaded

The drug trade was having major impacts on governance in the region overloading the police and justice systems in Myanmar, Thailand and other countries. Prisons in Thailand were packed with thousands of prisoners “after years of drug wars”, most for relatively minor offenses.

“The situation isn’t good – it’s dire – and the challenge is massive. It needs a regional response. What they [local authorities] don’t do is target the organized crime, they target the user. So, we’re trying to prod the governments to a [more] balanced response.”

Douglas spoke during a panel discussion on the problem at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok on Wednesday night with experts from both Thailand and Myanmar.

The change in focus that the UNODC has been pushing for looks to be happening, albeit slowly, with governments in Thailand and Myanmar both set to implement lesser penalties for drug-users and small-time dealers.

“Drug use is higher [in some areas] because of the war – because they don’t have other economic options. It’s easy for them to find a market [for drugs] in the jade mines… and armed [ethnic] groups need financial sources to support their armed conflict.”

Police Colonel Zaw Lin Tun, chief of project management at Myanmar’s Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC), told the forum that his country’s drug problem “is not going down – we need to consider a new policy and a new law.”

He said the country’s long-running civil strife meant that people in some border areas with a lack of education, healthcare and income were susceptible to inducement by drug dealers.

“Drug use is higher [in some areas] because of the war – because they don’t have other economic options. It’s easy for them to find a market [for drugs] in the jade mines… and armed [ethnic] groups need financial sources to support their armed conflict.”

Myanmar introduced “alternative sentencing” with lesser penalties for small dealers or drug users in 2009, he said, but 40% of prisoners in jails around the country were drug users or small dealers – and the figure was double that in Kachin State in the far north, which has been wracked by fighting in recent years.

Colonel Zaw Lin Tun said anti-drug laws were being revised again by the Upper House in Nay Pyi Taw to soften penalties for drug users. “We’re trying to improve their life, and also [do this] for their family and the country. They got three to five years [in jail] before but now can go to the community and get treatment.”

Huge cost of jailing small-time drug dealers

Dr Apinun Aramrattana, a doctor and researcher from Chiang Mai University who works with the Thai Narcotics Control Board, told the gathering Thailand had several hundred thousand users of ‘ice’, plus over 70,000 injecting drug users.

He said over half of the Thai Ministry of Justice’s budget was spent on criminalization, managing over 300,000 prisoners – 70% of who were small-time drug dealers or users.

But the UN push for lighter penalties for small-time drug dealers and users, plus the move to decriminalize use of marijuana in some parts of the world had spurred Thai drug officials to review their laws. However, that process was still being finalized.

“There is talk of changing the law to one more focused on public health. Drug users won’t be prosecuted. They’ll be put under social care. But major crimes will still be punished,” he said.

One reply on “Target Golden Triangle drug lords, not users, UN urges”

Comments are closed.