Does ASEAN Have A Drug Crisis?

There is a surge in opium in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle region, even as countries such as Singapore have cracked down on drugs.

Tangaraju Suppiah, a 46-year-old citizen of Singapore, was executed in the country’s Changi prison a few weeks ago for his involvement in cannabis trafficking. The death sentence was meant to be a deterrent against drug trafficking. Despite public outcry, Singapore has maintained and upheld its stringent laws on drugs. However, its allies in the ASEAN region have a different point of view.

Southeast Asia is a land of contrasts with countries such as Thailand and Myanmar engaging in the active production of opioids and cannabis. In fact, a survey by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on opium cultivation in Myanmar estimated a 33% rise in poppy cultivation in 2022. This opium finds its way into production facilities for synthetic drugs in the Golden Triangle.

The impact is felt in the border regions of Thailand and Laos because of the surge in illicit drug trafficking. Take the example of Laos. In 2021 alone, the authorities seized 143 million meth tablets. Cambodia also presents a grim picture. In 2022, the enforcement authorities seized ~4,540 kilograms of drugs in the country.

OPIOIDS ON A NEW “HIGH”
The Golden Triangle is an area where the borders of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet. A hot spot for drug trafficking, it is also a location that has witnessed numerous faceoffs between Thai security forces and drug syndicates. In recent times, however, the situation has spiralled out of control.

Shipments of synthetic drugs such as meth, crystal meth, heroin, and ketamine, worth hundreds of kilograms, are regularly seized. These seizures often lead to violent armed conflicts in the Golden Triangle.

Myanmar, in particular, has been among the largest cultivators of opium. There was a decline between 2013 and 2021 owing to a decline in the price of fresh opium as well as a dip in demand for opiates.

But the situation reversed in 2021 when the military took power in Myanmar. The social-economic and governance disruptions caused a 33% increase in poppy cultivation in 2022. Eradication efforts also decreased, leading to locals growing poppy for economic sustenance.

Source: Annual opium surveys by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
Note: No survey was conducted in 2016.

*The military took over power in February 2021 ousting Aung San Suu Kyi

The total area of opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar has decreased significantly from 55,500 recorded in 2015 to 41,000 hectares in 2017, as per a United Nations survey.The Myanmar Opium Survey 2017 released by UNODC finds reductions have been most significant in East Shan with a drop of 37 per cent and South Shan with a drop of 29 per cent.

The report also reveals that while progress has been made, North Shan and Kachin states have witnessed reductions of less than three per cent and seven per cent, which on the ground amounts to a deduction of only 600 hectares in total. The report reconfirms the link between conflict and opium in Myanmar, and that insecure areas with active insurgencies continue to cultivate and produce at levels similar to 2015.

Source: UNODC Survey

The drug trade has increased crime and affected citizens. Cambodia, for instance, has declared a war on drugs and routinely arrests traffickers. In Laos, two-thirds of crimes are drug related.

There is also a link between underdevelopment and the drug crisis. Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar have been classified as among the least developed countries in the world. With inadequate economic opportunities, the local youth turn to opium cultivation. This ultimately results in drug trafficking and addiction. In fact, drug gangs control a few economic zones in Myanmar and Laos.

This is true for Thailand as well. Thailand, which legalised cannabis use in 2022, is grappling with marijuana addiction along with meth and other synthetic drugs. In November 2022, all monks at a Thai temple tested positive for meth. To deal with the crisis, the country’s health ministry has proposed tougher laws for drug consumption and trade.

But time is running out. The surge in opium production will strengthen the drug network in the region and cause the situation to worsen.

JOINT EFFORTS TO CURB THE CRISIS

Enforcement, treatment, rehabilitation, and education can curb the drug menace in the Golden Triangle. The resolution of the drug crisis requires cross-border cooperation among all ASEAN nations.

The ASEAN Work Plan on Securing Communities Against Illicit Drugs is a major initiative that can be utilised to drive awareness-building across the region. This plan aspires for a drug-free ASEAN by 2025 and involves stricter enforcement, awareness creation, and the establishment of rehab facilities.

The role of civil society organisations to bridge the gap cannot be overstated. The Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs, for example, can be a platform for developing a common framework to eradicate the drug trade.

Strengthening local laws and regional collaborations between ASEAN and neighbouring countries such as China and India can be beneficial. Assistance from international bodies such as UNODC will also prove to be advantageous in information gathering about illicit drug activity.

Targeting illicit opioid producers and regular seizing of the produce will force drug lords to desist from their illegal activity. It is not a one-man or a one-country responsibility. The governments of the region need to collaborate and cooperate to strike drug usage at its very roots.

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