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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.