A member of the United Wa State Army shows Ya Ba pills before they are set on fire during a drug burning ceremony to mark the UN's world anti-drugs day in Poung Par Khem, near the Thai and Myanmar border on June 26, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

BANGKOK – The days of small drug busts in Thailand are long over.

Since at least 2017 seizures of illicit narcotics have involved shipments of multiple millions of “yaba” speed tablets and truckloads of high-purity crystal methamphetamine weighing hundreds of kilograms and often over a tonne.

But even by the standards of the kingdom’s new normal, the size of the latest bust was a jaw-dropper that stunned even seasoned cops and counter-narcotics officials.

On November 12 an intelligence tip-off led police to a warehouse in Chachoengsao province close to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport where they found a massive stash of ketamine, or “Super K”, a hallucinogenic drug increasingly popular in East Asia.

Weighing in at over 11.5 tonnes with a street value of close to US$1 billion, it marked the biggest interdiction of illicit drugs in the history of a country that has been the main transit route for illicit narcotics spilling out of Myanmar since the 1950s.

The unprecedented seizure threw into stark relief two overarching realities of a narcotics crisis that governments across the region are already well aware of but can never afford to publicly admit.

The first is that Myanmar’s Shan state, that country’s largest administrative division, has emerged as a de facto special economic zone (SEZ) for the industrial-scale production of a smorgasbord of illicit narcotics. Shan state’s spiraling drugs industry operates mostly securely beyond the reach of local or international law enforcement.

The other is that behind an impressive facade of well-funded national counternarcotics bureaucracies, feel-good international conferences and pro forma commitments to stepped up cooperation, Asia’s war on drugs is being comprehensively lost.

Packs of crystal methamphetamine weighing 600 kilograms seized in a crackdown in Samut Sakhon, Thailand, July 17, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum

The winners are well-organized professional crime cartels with global reach that continue to diversify and expand their operations while corrupting and undermining any official capacity for serious response.

At least some of the Chachoengsao haul, packaged as harmless chemicals, was headed from Bangkok to Taiwan. A tip-off from Taiwanese police alerted their Thai counterparts to the warehouse. The warning had been triggered by a 300-kilogram ketamine seizure in Taiwan and the intelligence derived from it a few days earlier.

According to authorities, the warehouse had been rented since July this year by a Thai national of hill-tribe ethnicity from the northern border province of Chiang Rai – part of what in simpler days of opium and heroin trafficking became known as the “Golden Triangle” where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet.

Senior Thai narcotics officials confirmed almost immediately that the ketamine had been produced across the border inside Shan state. Exactly where in a sprawling, mountainous region that constitutes nearly one-quarter of Myanmar’s total territory will probably never be known.

The arrest of the Chiang Rai middleman before the warehouse was overrun by police and TV crews might have provided hard intel on who produced the synthetic drug and where. In the event, good police work was trumped by the local proclivity for media-soaked seizure celebrations that afford senior police and politicians prime-time “face.” Alerted by the media bonanza, the Chiang Rai hill-tribe operative skipped town and remains on the lam.

In a sense, though, hard intelligence on where the latest batches of ketamine were produced would have been only of academic interest.

Thai authorities of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) already possess megabytes of data, much of it shared with their international counterparts, mapping the forensics of narcotics types and signatures of drug-producing “labs” across Shan state.

According to the regional offices of the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Bangkok, the rising tsunami of Shan-centered illicit production is now estimated to involve cash flows of $61.4 billion annually — up from around $40 billion in 2017.

Surging volume, growing diversification and the increasingly standardized purity of narcotics production all reflect sweeping changes in the Shan state trade.

The 1990s era of insurgent-run heroin and yaba production using hand-cranked presses in temporary jungle huts has transformed to large-scale industrial facilities run by sophisticated criminal enterprises catering to expanding and increasingly globalized markets.

A Myanmar policeman holds poppy plants after a field was destroyed above the village of Tar-Pu, in the mountains of Shan State January 27, 2012. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Operated by skilled chemists – often from Taiwan – the new production hubs are financed and run by what narcotics intelligence sources describe as a shifting handful of cartels, mostly ethnic Chinese  based in what they refer to as the “Hong Kong-Macao-Guangdong Triangle.”

Overlaps with traditional triad organizations such as the 14K and Big Circle Boys and, in some cases, previous business collaboration with Shan state heroin producers, are not uncommon.

As the UNODC’s peripatetic Bangkok head Jeremy Douglas argues, the rise of cartel-run production in Shan state was initially triggered by a sweeping and concerted crackdown on meth production across southeastern China dating back to 2014.

“Before that, China was the biggest producer of meth in Asia and drawing international attention,” he notes. “We then see a sharp drop in China and a steady rise in Shan.”

Not by coincidence in the years that followed, seizures of meth labs declined across Southeast Asia, notably in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, as production in the far more secure hills of northeast Myanmar was ramped up.

Amid the chaotic military and administrative fragmentation of Shan state, a zone of anarchy that meets virtually any definition of a “failed state”, East Asian drug syndicates are broadly invested in two categories of local armed protection.

The first consists of ethnic armed organizations typically based east of the Salween River and in stable ceasefire arrangements with Myanmar’s national military, or Tatmadaw.

Controlling a wide swath of territory between the Salween River and the Chinese border, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) ranks as the largest and militarily most powerful such group.

With a standing army of some 27,000 trained and well-equipped regulars, its armed forces have achieved a level of deterrence that for the foreseeable future precludes any government action against it.

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Headquartered in the town of Mong La, a smaller UWSA ally and neighbor, the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), controls territory along the Chinese border further east.

Critically it also provides access to the Mekong River at the Myanmar port of Sop Lui, situated opposite of Laos, facilitating the movement of a wide range of goods including narcotics and precursor chemicals in addition to vehicles, weaponry and more.

Having expanded heroin production through the 1990s and later diversified into methamphetamine stimulants, the UWSA appears to have reduced its role in direct production in favor of other potentially lucrative roles in the trade, not least leasing space and protection to outside players. 

Corroboration of that appeared to emerge from Taiwan in August this year following a major counternarcotics operation which saw the seizure of 645 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine and 395 kilograms of heroin being landed from a vessel.

A senior prosecutor was quoted in local media as noting that the key Taiwanese trafficker arrested in the bust had been “known to visit and purchase drugs in Southeast Asia and (had) allegedly taken military planes or helicopters into the ‘Golden Triangle’.”

A senior counternarcotics intelligence official who spoke to Asia Times discounted the possibility of Myanmar’s military providing air transport for a Taiwanese drug dealer, but added pointedly that the UWSA is known to operate several transport helicopters.

Sources also noted that over the past two to three years the Wa have branched out into trafficking and possibly even producing precursor chemicals – potentially a hugely profitable business that obviates current efforts to stem the flow of precursors moving into Shan state mainly from China but also from Thailand and other countries.

The sources noted that over this period there has been confirmation that the Wa area had imported significant quantities of “unique and very sophisticated chemicals.”

Given that there are no known industries in the region that might require these chemicals for any legitimate use, the imports “in volumes that are inexplicable” appeared intended either to produce precursor chemicals required for meth production or possibly to manufacture other synthetic drugs.

A Thai police official in front of captured methamphetamine pills, or yaba, in a file photo. Picture: AFP

The supposition in intelligence circles is that these specialized chemicals – imported from both China and Laos via other countries in the Lower Mekong region – are being used to produce precursors.

That notion has been reinforced by analysis of regional data and intelligence that reflects, on the one hand, the staggering increase in crystal methamphetamine production in Shan state, and, on the other, the fact that seizures of traditional precursors ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine have declined.

“This potentially puts the Wa in a broker role for precursors being used in other parts of Shan state,” noted one official. “And bear in mind that these precursors can be worth more the drugs themselves in Shan state.”

This is the first in a two-part series on Asia’s losing war on drugs.