Tag Archives: Golden Triangle

Solving Southeast Asia’s drug problem

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Image of the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet.

The Obama administration has once again named Myanmar and Laos to its list of twenty-two countries determined to be major drug trafficking countries or major drug transit countries. The White House memo, issued on Monday, noted that Myanmar “failed demonstrably during the last twelve months to make sufficient or meaningful efforts to adhere to their obligations under international counternarcotics agreements.” The United States, however, did extend Myanmar a National Interest Waiver to promote democracy and avoid reduction of aid to Burma as a result of the designation.

The Golden Triangle, an area formed roughly by the upland frontier areas of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and China, was the world’s leading opium producer from the 1960s to the 1980s. But just less than ten years ago, it was moving toward opium free status as deepening economic ties with a rising China brought new investment and governments supported crop substitution programs in the region. Now, opium, methamphetamines, and other drugs from the Golden Triangle are once again flooding regional and global markets.

In just the past two months alone, 26mn methamphetamine tablets were seized in Yangon, Myanmar and 1.5 tons of marijuana packed into coffee shipments from Laos were seized in Cambodia. Earlier this year The New York Times ran a series of exposes on opium production and heroin addiction in Myanmar’s conflict-ridden Shan and Kachin states. The United Nations estimates that Myanmar’s poppy cultivation has tripled since 2006 and takes up almost 150,000 acres.

Despite recent spurts of economic growth in Myanmar and Laos, flagging economic conditions on the countries’ peripheries and civil war in Myanmar are pushing marginal peoples toward the production of opium. Lucrative cash crops like opium won’t make farmers rich, but hired labor on an illegal opium farm in Kachin state will earn $8 per hour compared with $2.50 working on a legal farm.

A new push factor for upland drug production in Laos and Myanmar is the arrival of small-scale agricultural investors from China’s neighboring Yunnan province. Their projects, often set up on lowland concessions granted by national or local governments, utilize less local labor and thus create a landless poor classes that literally ‘head for the hills’ to cultivate opium. Another new addition to the landscape is recently built highways and other infrastructure development projects that link urban centers but often ignore the periphery. Poor road conditions in upland areas cannot facilitate logistical support or encourage investment that could promote legal and productive agricultural activities in upland areas. And once the opium makes its way down narrow trails to the lowland areas, the highway serve as quick conduits for global distribution networks.

Being out of reach from state security and legal institutions – which typically underperform at any rate in Laos and Myanmar – permits opium farmers and trafficking middlemen to operate with impunity. Upland Southeast Asia is not the only place affected. Evidence shows drug use is on the rise in China and within Southeast Asia’s growing urban and rural middle classes. Moreover, crackdown efforts in lowland areas of these countries has only pushed production further into upland areas which are harder to reach.

Efforts to control and stem opiate production in Laos and Myanmar are often focused on identification and eradication. Government agencies locate productive areas and destroy illegal crops. This often forces rural peoples into poverty or drives villagers to new, more remote areas ripe for opium production. The UN and China have introduced crop substitution as a solution in Myanmar and Laos. But this “big state solution” often fails in its implementation because it neglects the needs of upland agriculture and flounders in its long term commitment to solving the problem.

In 2007, China’s crop substitution programs looked to be succeeding in reducing opium production. However, poor investment in infrastructure and low commitment to technical assistance created a situation where alternative cash crops could not compete on a global market and upland farmers were left high and dry.

Investments in coffee and rubber – often seen as more lucrative cash crops – take three to seven years to yield a harvest. This, coupled with falling global food prices and high transportation costs due to lack of infrastructure, discourages alternative investment. As a result, crop substitution investments in sugar, buckwheat, coffee, and rubber have consistently failed or are currently flagging in upland Southeast Asia.

To effectively curb the production of opium and other illegal drugs in upland areas of Myanmar and Laos, expenditure on agricultural extension programs and infrastructure such as paved roads and logistical facilities must increase to attract suitable investment into these areas. Advances in the peace process in Myanmar and resultant spurts of legitimate economic growth in the country’s ethnic autonomous states will do much to curb opium and methamphetamine production. Laos, however, is a different story. Even peace cannot stem opiate production, with its current set of weak institutions dictated by the fiat of a few powerful families with strong ties to China. Counter-narcotic efforts are vital to stop the flow of opium and methamphetamines in Southeast Asia. But they must be paired with viable economic solutions for the upland farmers involved in drug production.

This article was first published here on The Diplomat website on September 17. 

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The Illicit Drug Industry & Counter-Narcotics in Southeast Asia

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Drug enforcement officials in Burma. Image: The Irrawaddy

On 5 October 2011, when Thai river police investigated reported gunshots on the middle reaches of the Mekong River, they discovered two cargo vessels and their 12 Chinese crew members, all of whom had been executed and their bodies dumped in the river. The ships were determined to have been hijacked to transport illicit cargo, and they contained over 920,000 amphetamine tablets, locally referred to as yaba, which were subsequently confiscated by Thai authorities.

Over the past 70 years stories like this have become commonplace in the notorious Golden Triangle, a delta area at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak Rivers that takes up approximately 150,000 square kilometers of land in the tri-state Thai, Lao and Burmese (Myanmar) border region. Drug production and trafficking has brought this locality to international infamy, and it remains the world’s second largest cultivator of opium poppy, second only to Afghanistan. Faced with rising heroin and amphetamine-type stimulant (ATS) addiction levels, drug-related violence, and an expanding HIV epidemic, Southeast Asian governments have recently begun to intensify their efforts to combat this endemic problem. Using bilateral agreements and the frameworks of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), and the Asian Regional Forum (ARF), actions by these governments have met varying levels of success.

 

Colonial Roots of the Southeast Asian Drug Trade

Opium poppy is native to the lush and remote Yunnan and Sichuan Provinces of China’s southwest. For hundreds of years small-scale cultivation by hill tribes in the region met the modest needs of Chinese opium-smokers, but in the early 19th century a powerful competitor arrived in Southeast Asia: the British Empire and its waves of merchants and imperialists, all trying to find new markets for seemingly unlimited supplies of India-grown opium. At the humiliating conclusion of the 1842 Opium War the British forced the Chinese emperor to accept opium imports, thereby unleashing one of the most devastating drug epidemics in history: a mere thirty years later, British opium imports were supplying an estimated 15 million Chinese opium addicts.

Social upheaval in China during the 19th and 20th century caused massive emigration of Chinese refugees to all parts of the world, and where they went, their opium habits followed. The large Chinese immigrant populations in Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam provided lucrative opportunities for the opium industry, and despite the protests of indigenous rulers, one by one state-mandated opium franchises were forced into being by British and French imperialists. It was also in this time that fleeing Chinese merchants and hill tribe people arrived in the Golden Triangle area and introduced poppy cultivation to the local populations.

In British Burma, the imperialist government lacked the ability to administer the western Shan States and so instead provided them with autonomy in exchange for loyalty. This autonomy provided a foundation for a thriving opium economy and a fiercely independent political consciousness, both of which would have strong legacies long after the British withdrawal. In French Indochina, the government-run Opium Monopoly worked industriously to incorporate Laotian poppy-growing hill tribes, and helped to sponsor the Yunnan-Tonkin railway, which provided a valuable link to the well-established opium cultivators of southwest China.

 

Colonial Events Timeline

In the years following World War II, almost all of the world’s major opium producers, the largest being Turkey, Iran, and India, brought an end to their legal opium exports to Southeast Asia, which created an enormous vacuum in the opium industry. Newly Communist China, independent Burma, and restored French Indochina all cracked down on local production, further choking supply. Eradication of the drug industry was not achieved however, primarily thanks to the actions of Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) remnants in northern Burma, the corrupt Thai National Police Force, and the French and American covert intelligence agencies.

About 1,500 battered KMT troops entered Burma in 1949, fleeing the advance of the People’s Liberation Army into Yunnan Province. This weak force was nearly crushed by the Burmese army, but in 1950 they began receiving airdrops of weapons from the CIA, which was frantic to arm groups on the southern borders of the People’s Republic of China in case Mao Zedong had expansionist ambitions. Reinforced by additional troops flown in from Taiwan, the empowered KMT army executed several failed invasions to retake Yunnan, but afterward decided to remain in northern Burma and hold the line against the Communist threat. This well-armed army proceeded to force the local tribes-people into opium cultivation, and with the help of the corrupt Thai police force, created one of the most robust drug production and trafficking systems in history.

Opium produced in northern and eastern Burma was transported across the Thai border and down to Bangkok, where it was exported out of the rest of Southeast Asia. In 1961, provoked by aggressive expansionism on the part of the KMT, the Burmese Army and the PLA jointly ousted the Nationalists from Burma and forced them into Thailand and Laos, where their communities remain today. Although the KMT forces no longer directly controlled the opium cultivation, the system was in place and ethnic Chinese, then later various Burmese insurgent traffickers, maintained the lucrative trafficking network into Thailand.

 

Drug enforcement officials in Burma. Image: Business Week

Drug enforcement officials in Burma. Image: Business Week

In French Indochina, the under-financed French intelligence community covertly took over management of the formally illegal opium trade in order to continue their efforts in suppressing Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh. The Laotian opium industry that they nourished would later find its greatest successes during the American GI heroin epidemic of the Second Indochina Conflict, and following that, in its international spread into the continental US and Europe.

Currently, the vast majority of Southeast Asian illicit narcotics are produced in the semi-autonomous, rebel-administered eastern states of Burma, while smaller amounts also come from the remote areas of western Laos and northern Thailand. It is trafficked in two main routes: the southern route goes through Thailand to Bangkok for distribution, and the northern route enters China’s Yunnan Province, headed for Kunming and then all of East Asia. Recently, Golden Triangle supply has been unable to keep up with skyrocketing Asian demand for heroin and ATS, and approximately one third of East and Southeast Asia’s narcotics now originate in Afghanistan.

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Source: UNODC Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2013: Lao PDR, Myanmar

 

Temporarily successful eradication programs and sustained crackdowns brought Southeast Asian drug production to a historical low in 2006, but since then there has been a consistent increase in cultivation, production, trafficking, and consumption, with levels returning to those of the 1970s and 1980s. This steady expansion of the drug trade is occurring despite a 2005 self-imposed opium cultivating ban in the territories of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Burma, a rebel group that previously accounted for the lion’s share of Burma’s opium production. This worrying trend has many consequences for Southeast Asian society.

 

Threats Posed by the Illicit Drug Industry

The streaming supply of narcotics from the Golden Triangle into China and Thailand has negative impacts on myriad areas of Southeast Asian life. Mass drug addiction and drug trafficking causes the breakup of families and increases in crime rates, spreads diseases like HIV, burdens the economy through lost productivity, imposes financial costs on the state, spreads law enforcement thin, overwhelms justice systems, encourages corruption, and funds violent groups. As production continues to increase, these problems are becoming more pronounced and demand strong preventative action.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that an average of 13% of injected-drug users are HIV positive, and more than half have hepatitis C. Coupled with China’s annually growing number of registered opioid users (official figures reported 1.3 million users in 2012, with actual rates likely almost double that), this situation makes the threat of a massive HIV epidemic in the world’s largest country ever more likely. Recent trends in China suggest that methamphetamine use is slowly overtaking heroin use as China’s most problematic drug, and just in China 228 meth labs were dismantled in 2012. Widespread amphetamine use continues to be a regional dilemma, as more than 8,980,000 people in East and Southeast Asian used ATS tablets in 2013. The Greater Mekong Subregion has the highest rate of crystal meth use in the world, and this drug use is exacting large tolls on society, as addiction-fueled crime expands and as families and communities spend time and resources helping addicts.

Number of Heroin Users 2010

Source: UNODC Transnational Organized Crime in East Asia and the Pacific: a Threat Assessment, April 2013

The criminals and insurgents that operate the drug trade are making enormous windfalls from their work: the value of all consumed East and Southeast Asian heroin was estimated at $16.3 billion USD in 2011, with methamphetamine and amphetamine consumption valued at an additional $15 billion USD. The traffickers and their associates encompass a wide variety of individuals: ethnic Chinese syndicates, Nigerian and Iranian criminal groups, high-ranking Southeast Asian officials and military personnel, and Burmese insurgent and paramilitary forces. Although on average 50,000 people are arrested each year for trafficking illicit narcotics in Southeast Asia, the high profits of the drug trade continue to lure thousands more into the business. In the case of Burmese fighters, drug earnings are usually spent on weapons, helping to intensify violence in those areas.

drug market value

Source: UNODC Transnational Organized Crime in East Asia and the Pacific: a Threat Assessment, April 2013

Some of the drug trade’s worst victims are the poverty-stricken opium cultivators in the Golden Triangle. Lacking other economic opportunities and desperate for income, many rural farmers are forced into dealings with violent traffickers and become trapped in a cycle of drug cultivation, slowly becoming more and more dependent on poppy income. They are prevented from growing crops that can benefit society, and oftentimes their communities are hit hard by addiction. Unfortunately, these rural villagers only make up a small portion of the people whose lives are destroyed by the drug trade.

 

International Cooperation and Efforts to Eliminate the Drug Industry

The governments of Southeast Asia have been working to combat the narcotics trade ever since their post-colonial independence, but unfortunately the vast majority of these efforts have been restricted to unilateral measures. Law enforcement is usually by definition national in character, but the drug trade is a transnational and regional problem, and increased cooperation on the part of Southeast Asian governments is critical for its sustainable reduction.

Thanks in large part to the prodding of the US government, which had recently declared its own War on Drugs, the 1976 ASEAN Bali Summit saw the adoption of the “ASEAN Declaration of Principles to Combat the Abuses of Narcotics Drugs.” Although mainly filled with rhetoric and containing few concrete measures, this declaration showed consensus among the ASEAN governments and kicked off the modern wave of counter-narcotics policies in Southeast Asia.

Thailand can be considered one of the more successful cases of sustainable reduction in illicit cultivation. Starting in 1984, the Thai government embarked on a 30-year intensive program of crop replacement, which has resulted in bringing opium cultivation in northern Thailand to negligible levels.

In contrast, the efforts of Burma’s Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control have been snared in the frequently contradicting objectives of the government’s anti-insurgent policy. Despite the ambitious 1999 declaration by the ruling regime to eliminate all illicit drug production by 2014, the Burmese government often turns a blind eye towards the narcotics industry in its efforts to co-opt various rebel groups. In the 1980s and 1990s the weak central government began signing ceasefire agreements with the numerous insurgent armies that control the Burmese borderlands, and many of those autonomy-granting agreements contained clauses permitting (and even encouraging) drug cultivation and production by the groups in exchange for their loyalty to the regime. Subsequently, drug enforcement policy became a tool of the state, and it was used both as a carrot and a stick to bring insurgent groups into the legal fold. When a United States grand jury indicted several leaders of the United Wa State Army, which had signed a ceasefire agreement and was the largest Burmese opium producer in the early 2000s, the government refused to arrest them or crack down on their illegal businesses. This lack of enforcement can be seen as a way of repayment for loyalty, and is in direct contrast to the government’s actions towards the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). The MNDAA, another major opium producer, had refused to make peace with the government, and when the government attacked them in 2009, drug enforcement was the justification given. These two examples show how the central regime manipulates drug policy to its advantage in its state-building efforts, and explains the lack of sustained progress in eliminating the narcotics industry.

 

ASEAN response timeline            In addition to the unilateral efforts of individual states, regional organizations and agreements have been crucial to the evolution of drug enforcement in the Golden Triangle. In the late 1990s, ASEAN began examining anti-narcotics and other issues such as human trafficking and smuggling in the context of transnational crime, and started putting greater emphasis on regional cooperation. The expansion of ASEAN in 1997 to include the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the Union of Myanmar allowed the other ASEAN governments to exert more diplomatic pressure on the newcomers to clean up their drug exporting regions, demonstrated in the ASEAN Declaration on Transnational Crime. Although the declaration contained no binding measures, it set up several communication and monitoring bodies, including the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime (AMMTC), the ASEAN Chiefs of National Police (ASEANAPOL) and the ASEAN Senior Officials on Drug Matters (ASOD). These bodies mainly monitor the progress of the 2000 Bangkok Political Declaration in Pursuit of a Drug-Free ASEAN 2015, but they also work to encourage development of bilateral extradition treaties, international criminal justice institutions, and cooperative border control, legal assistance, and data sharing.

 

The Future: Regional Integration and the Effectiveness of Anti-Narcotics Policy

2015 is marked to be the year in which the ASEAN Economic Community is brought into being, and many hope that it will bring with it great advances in regional trade, infrastructure, and cooperation. Already projects such as the North-South Economic Corridor, running from Kunming to Bangkok, and the building of ports and bridges along the Mekong River are generating enormous economic benefits. However, advances in regional integration also provide opportunities for those who would exploit them for illegal purposes. The increasing ease of transporting illicit narcotics and the improving communication technologies of criminal groups present a strong challenge to the national law enforcement agencies of ASEAN countries. Equally innovative and efficient use of new capabilities and technologies, as well as increased intelligence sharing and coordination must be implemented for Southeast Asian governments to effectively meet these new threats.

In November 2011, just a month after the “Mekong Massacre,” China, Laos, Burma, and Thailand agreed to cooperate on river patrols and law enforcement along the Mekong River. Their Joint Statement detailed numerous confidence building measures between the various national police forces, but mainly focused on the responsibility of each individual nation to properly patrol its own sovereign waters. This aspect reveals the major weakness of all ASEAN counter-narcotics efforts to date: ASEAN nations are caught in a paradoxical situation where despite the damaging effects of the drug industry and transnational crime on national sovereignty, the only way to effectively counter those threats is by each nation giving up some measure of their treasured sovereignty. Sovereignty and non-intervention are the two defining pillars of the “ASEAN Way,” and yet those two concepts desperately need to be reevaluated if transnational crime is to be confronted.

Confidence building measures and increased regional communication is a critical first step, but in order to make real progress in fighting the rising threat of transnational crime ASEAN nations need to accept the reduction of their sovereignty. A hopeful example is provided by the official conclusion of the Mekong Massacre: Naw Kham, the Burmese drug lord who supposedly masterminded the murders, was captured by Burmese counter-narcotics forces and extradited to China, where he and three of his subordinates were tried and executed in March 2013. Extradition treaties like these form the basis of effective cooperation, and similarly collaborative measures must be actively pursued by ASEAN governments if they are to successfully tackle the deeply-entrenched and continually evolving menace of the drug industry in Southeast Asia.

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Laos extradites drug suspects to Yunnan

Editors note: This article was originally written by Cissy Yu and published on Go Kunming. It is reprinted on Exse in its entirety. 

Yunnan has long been the country’s main entry point for illegal drugs. Despite increased interdiction efforts, international law enforcement cooperation and recent large-scale busts, it appears the province’s ‘Drug War‘ is becoming more costly and having only a small effect on the overall flow of narcotics across the border.

Last week, Lao police transferred five suspected members of a drug ring to Kunming in a display of cooperation between the two countries. Authorities originally detained the suspects in a joint police raid conducted on March 19, 2013, when a naval patrol seized more than 500 million yuan (US$82.3 million) worth of methamphetamines on the Mekong River.

China has been conducting patrols such as this with the help of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar since the “Mekong River Massacre” of October 2011. The attack, which killed 13 Chinese sailors, spurred Beijing to begin interdiction patrols along the river. Institution of the policy, although sanctioned by neighboring Southeast Asian countries, was the first time in three decades that Chinese forces have operated outside the nation’s borders without a United Nations mandate.

Although the drug lord responsible for the killings, Naw Kham, was sentenced and publicly executed in Kunming last year, illegal drug trafficking continues to run rampant in the border regions between Yunnan, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. Known as the Golden Triangle, the area supplies an estimated 60 to 70 percent of all drugs consumed in China. A United Nations surveyconducted last year reported that opium cultivation in the Triangle rose by 22 percent in 2013, largely driven by mounting demand from the mainland.

Yunnan’s 4,060-kilometer border with Golden Triangle nations presents a grim challenge for anti-drug personnel. According to Yunnan Net, 70 percent of methamphetamines confiscated in China last year were seized in Yunnan. Currently, there are 1.7 million registered drug addicts in the province, although the government acknowledges the actual numbers are much higher.

While heroin remains the most commonly smuggled drug on the border, methamphetamines — also known as ‘ice’ — are a fast-growing second. In Ruili, a border town infamous in the past for its heroin trade, methamphetamines now dominate the market. One dose of the crystals — known as bingdu (冰毒) in Chinese — reportedly costs as little as five yuan.

Yunnan’s narcotics officials, meanwhile, claim they have redoubled efforts to combat the drug trade. Provincial courts sentenced more than 5,020 suspects for drug crimes in 2013. Yet some officials have complained that the record numbers on trial have led to more lenient judgments. “A suspect who would get the death penalty elsewhere [in China] only gets several years of jail in Yunnan,” said a National People’s Congress deputy. “The judicial system should be punishing these people with an iron hand.”

Image: China Radio International

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Unexpected Waters: How Sudden Water Changes in the Mekong Affect Local Thai Livelihoods

 

The riverbank vegetable plot in Boong Kla sub-district, Boong Kla, Bueng Kan was completely inundated.  Ms. Jarin Kamghong had to replant the plot after flooding in December 2013.  Photo: March 8, Montree Chantawong

The riverbank vegetable plot in Boong Kla sub-district, Boong Kla, Bueng Kan was completely inundated. Ms. Jarin Kamghong had to replant the plot after flooding in December 2013. Photo: March 8, Montree Chantawong

On an early morning last December, Manee* (name changed to protect privacy), a woman of 73, woke to prepare offerings to the monks in Ban Viang Kook of Nongkhai Province in Thailand. A papaya in one hand, she steadied the knife in the other to make somtum – northeastern Thailand’s famed salad dish. Apart from unripened papaya, the other crucial ingredient is tomato. Manee walked to her backyard on the banks of the Mekong River to pick some. That’s when she realized that her riverbank crops had flooded overnight, as she lifted her sarong up above her knees to avoid the water. Continue reading

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The Kunming-Bangkok Highway’s Final Link Opens over the Mekong

The Fourth Thai-Lao Friendship bridge which connects Thailand’s Chiang Rai province to Lao PDR’s Bokeo province officially opened for business yesterday.  Although the bridge, which stretches 400 meters across the Mekong river, and surrounding customs and inspection infrastructure have been completed for a few months, the two countries set the auspicious date of December 11, 2013 or 11/12/13 as written in the international form for the bridge’s opening ceremony conducted by Thailand’s highly respected Princess Sirindhorn.

 

A local fisherman navigates the Mekong downstream of the new bridge (July 2012)

A local fisherman navigates the Mekong downstream of the new bridge (July 2012)

The prime benefactor from the bridge’s opening is not Thailand or Laos, but rather China as the bridge serves as the final link in the Kunming-Bangkok highway, a 1900km series of connected highways that will facilitate significant increases in container shipping trade between China and Thailand.  Six years ago overland transport between Kunming and Bangkok for container shipping was virtually impossible due to the poor quality of roads.  In China’s southwestern Yunnan province, a drive from Kunming to Jinghong, the Dai cultural capital of Sipsongpanna (Xishuangbanna) prefecture took up to 24 hours and another six hours to the Lao PDR border at Boten.   China completed its portion of the highway to in late 2007.

The Lao PDR segment of the highway connects Boten to the 4th Friendship bridge in Huayxai and cuts through 180km of the most remote parts of Laos.  In the summer rainy season of 2004 I hitched a ride on a pickup truck to travel the 180km segment which then was a single lane mud track.  We completed the tiresome 10 hour drive only after averting a serious accident and certain death when the truck spun out of control nearly pitched over a 400 meter cliffside.    China, Thailand, and the Asian Development Bank invested equal thirds in the Laos portion of the highway which opened in 2010 and dropped transportation time to three hours.

By design, the highway system links the friendship bridge to Bangkok, but despite being the strongest economy on mainland Southeast Asia, Thailand’s highway system lags behind in quality compared to China and the stretch running through northern Laos.  Improvements to Thailand’s R3 highway system which will link Chiang Rai province to all points in Thailand is ongoing but far from complete.  Thailand has promised to upgrade its national transportation and highway infrastructure but political roadblocks, corruption, and a perceived lack of momentum for regional integration at many levels of Thai government and society has discouraged those plans from synching up with China’s outwardly stretching infrastructure linkages.   When the Thai roads are finished, a container truck will be able to travel from Kunming to Bangkok in less than 18 hours.

Road widening construction on Thailand's R3 in Chiang Rai province

Road widening construction on Thailand’s R3 in Chiang Rai province

The 14 hour drive from Kunming to the friendship bridge feels like a leapfrog journey from bridge to tunnel and tunnel to bridge as the road makes its 1800 meter descent.  These two roads cut through some of the most difficult terrain on the planet and link the Chinese state to the Thai state while passing through the most ethnically diverse region in Asia.

The roads not only to build regional commercial connections between China, Thailand, and Laos through the increases of trade and investment but they also assist in expanding each of these state’s interests and systems into the once impenetrable regions of upland southeast Asia by introducing national education systems, agricultural techniques that promote mono-cropping over traditional subsistence farming, and creating avenues for ethnic and rural peoples to leave their homes and link up to national labor markets.   The opening of the bridge will increase trade in the region and will intensify and quicken the pace of social change in upland Southeast Asia and reshuffle the cultural milieu of peoples who have sought refuge from the expansionary Chinese and Thai states for centuries.

Under construction, July 2012

Under construction, July 2012

Bridge completion, December 2013

Bridge completion, December 2013

The bridge’s construction has also caused an influx of Chinese investment in Chiang Rai province mostly in real estate development, speculation on future industrial estates for manufacturing of intra-industry goods passing between China and Thailand, and the buying up of agricultural lands.  While this investment is encouraged and welcomed at the national level and by the Chiang Rai Chamber of Commerce, locals are wary of the fast and growing levels of investment in the Golden Triangle Area by Chinese firms and often cite a “Chinese invasion.”  The mayor of Pak Ying Tai village, a small fishing community of 100 households located less than one kilometer south of the bridge has lamented to me on several occasions about China’s footprint in Chiang Rai as he observes year on year decreases in freshwater fish catches and sends more and more of his villagers looking for work in urban areas.

A local farmer from Pak Ying Tai village discusses his worries about community impacts of economic development

A local farmer from Pak Ying Tai village discusses his worries about community impacts of economic development

In many ways the bridge and its construction serve to represent the challenges of regional cooperation between China, Thailand, and the rest of mainland Southeast Asia.  From its conception in the late 1990s to its completion yesterday, the bridge has gone through stalled and failed rounds of negotiation and has not lacked controversy.  Groundbreaking for the 1 billion Thai baht project which is equally invested by China, Laos, and Thailand did not occur until 2010 despite a scheduled start for as early as 2006. In May 2011 Thailand pulled its portion of the construction team in order to settle a land dispute with the local Thai government accusing Chinese commercial interests of illegally purchasing land on the Thai side of the bridge.

Container trucks will no longer have to wait in line for the Mekong ferry at Huayxai in Laos.

Container trucks will no longer have to wait in line for the Mekong ferry at Huayxai in Laos.

Another obstacle to regional cooperation demonstrated by the bridge is the ease of passage through customs and inspection for both container trucks and individual travelers or tourists to the region.  Chinese trucks are not permitted to drive in Thailand, nor are Thai trucks allowed to travel through China; thus the speed of transport is slowed by the need to repackage goods at one of the border crossing points. Despite efforts of the ADB in to facilitate a shared cross border trade and transport protocol to streamline logistical flows at regional border checks in China and mainland Southeast Asia, states have been slow to adopt the measures in order to protect national markets and logistics industries.  New customs and inspections facilities at the bridge are fitted to increase the speed of transport and ease of people movement and will serve as a testing ground for these promised increases in logistical efficiencies.

Looking forward to the first six months after the bridge’s opening, the verdict will be clear on whether the bridge will serve as a strategic choke point, a gateway for win-win trade and economic development between two regional powers , or a conduit that will further challenge the structure of rural livelihoods in upland Southeast Asia.

Looking upstream at the completed bridge from Pak Ying Tai village.

Looking upstream at the completed bridge from Pak Ying Tai village.

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