Entitled “Transnational Organised Crime in Southeast Asia: Evolution, Growth and Impact,” the study is the most comprehensive on organised crime in Southeast Asia by the UN in over five years.
Synthetic drugs have rapidly become the most profitable illicit business in Southeast Asia compared to non-synthetics, as organised crime groups have become more innovative in expanding the methamphetamine market, which is now valued at up to US$61.4 billion annually. In comparison, the heroin market has contracted and is now valued at up to US$10.3 billion per year, the report said.
The report found large criminal groups have scaled-up and migrated operations to locations with weak governance, particularly to border areas, including Myanmar’s. Starting in 2019, in response to enforcement measures along the northern border between Myanmar and Thailand, organised crime groups have moved to trafficking increasing quantities of methamphetamine eastward through Laos to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as to southern Myanmar for shipment via the Andaman Sea and into central and southern Thailand.
Several large-scale methamphetamine trafficking cases along the borders of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Maynmar and Vietnam were reported in the first few months of 2019, illustrating this shift.
“Traffickers have been increasingly sending large shipments of crystal meth by boat in the last few years, and in 2019 it looks like an increase through the Andaman Sea. The method has been to send fishing or small commercial vessels out to connect to larger vessels which then take the shipments further, and in some cases ships have gone direct to southern Thailand, Malaysia and to some extent Indonesia,’’ said Jeremy Douglas, regional representative of the UNODC for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in response to emailed questions by The Myanmar Times.
A significant contributing factor appears to be heavy law enforcement suppression efforts in neighbouring China that displaced drug syndicates, forcing them to migrate production out of the country. The decline in illicit methamphetamine manufacturing in China has increased the importance of Myanmar as a supply source. It is also an indicator that large transitional organised crime syndicates that once operated in China have relocated into parts of Myanmar to evade law enforcement pressure.
“The biggest syndicates and traffickers have come out of, or have roots in, southern China, and they have formed alliances with groups that control territory in the country, but these same syndicates are transnational and are also in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam” Douglas said.
The report pointed out transnational organised crime groups operating in Myanmar in partnership with militias and ethnic armed groups are manufacturing and trafficking both crystalline and tablet methamphetamine for East and Southeast Asia and Oceania, and increasingly South Asia. Seizures of both forms of the drug are being made in quantities unimaginable a decade ago, with at least 120 tonnes seized in the region in 2018.
“Coinciding with the surge in the production of methamphetamine in Myanmar over recent years, the borders of Myanmar-Thailand and Thailand-Malaysia have become important for regional and inter-regional trafficking”, the report said.
Sharing borders with China, Laos and Thailand, Shan State is a significant source for methamphetamine trafficked from Myanmar to the three countries for their domestic markets as well as for subsequent trafficking to countries in Southeast Asia and beyond.
Myanmar manufactured crysatline methamphetamine are being trafficked overland through Thailand to Malaysia and via maritime trafficking routes from Thailand, as well as directly by sea from ports in Yangon and the southern regions of Myanmar.
“Without a doubt most, but not all, are found in areas of northern Shan with distribution south through Shan to the centre of the country, Mandalay and Yangon and onwards to Thailand, direct to China, northwest through Kachin to China,” said Douglas.
He added that labs are clandestine and in many cases not obvious and although they are often very large and high capacity, they can be moved.
Today, synthetic drug production is so profitable for organised crime syndicates that there is no easy solution to stopping it. “Enormous money is being made by the transnational crime syndicates producing and trafficking, but also by those that control the territory they produce in and traffic through. This is not the old yaba model anymore with millions or maybe tens of millions of dollars being made, this large scale and internationally significant with billions of dollars being made and moving around,” Douglas said.
The biggest syndicates and traffickers have come out of, or have roots in, southern China, and they have formed alliances with groups that control territory in the country, but these same syndicates are transnational and are also in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
As Myanmar remains epicenter of drug trade in the tough region, UNODC has been working with the government to actively implement the new national drug policy. “We hope (the drug policy) will bring some much needed balance to how the drug challenge is managed in the country and region,” Douglas added.
In responding to huge drug issue in Myanmar, president U Win Myint is seeking the public’s cooperation in providing information on drugs and drug trafficking, especially detailed information and intelligence on major syndicates and drug producers. U Win Myint admitted the drug problem escalated with the increased production of psychotropic stimulant tablets like ICE, which have been trafficked illegally to and from the borders Myanmar shares with its neighbouring countries.
According to the President’s Office, there were more than 3700 hectares of opium poppies and heroin production exceeded 500 tonnes in Myanmar in 2018. The Anti-Narcotics Task Force conducted 25 operations during the year, seizing and destroying more than US$300 million of illicit drugs.