Drugs: From Golden Past to Crystalline Future

Through many decades, the Golden Triangle, led by Myanmar, has been competing with the 'Golden Crescent' --the poppy-growing region in and around Afghanistan, and originally including also Turkey -- for the position of the main opium-producing area in the world.

Drugs: From Golden Past to Crystalline Future

By Rosalia Sciortino*

BANGKOK, Sep 20 - Recently, Philipp Borgs, a student of mine at the South-east Asia Studies Masters Programme of Chulalongkorn University, submitted a term paper on drug smuggling in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS). His review of existing literature, complemented by brief field observations, leaves little doubt that illegal trade has been able to capitalise on market expansion and infrastructure development triggered by regional integration, in the process successfully responding to new market demands.

Even if not emphasised in the development plans of national governments and the international agencies that support them, the freer movement of goods and persons, technological progress, and greater interconnectivity across countries benefits not only sanctioned parties. The creation of an unique growth area in the GMS, besides fostering intra-regional commerce and investments, is also contributing to the "modernisation" of the region's shadow economy and its diversification into a multitude of activities -- from smuggling of artefacts, guns, narcotics and wild animals, to gambling, money laundering and human trafficking for the manufacturing and sex industry.

Among these 'underground' flows that find a conduit in the expanding regional market, that of narcotics is probably the most entrenched in the history and culture of the GMS. It provides an interesting example of how illicit businesses have transformed their production methods and products to exploit emerging opportunities and overcome new challenges.

The Vanishing Golden Era

Drug consumption and trade in mainland South-east Asia has been dominated for centuries by opium and, later, its derived opiates, including heroin. Opinions differ on whether opium was already being grown in the region by ethnic tribes or only introduced by migrant groups from Southern China in the 19th century. In any case, from that time on, opium cultivation legal at the time -- became widespread among ethnic minorities in the mountainous border areas. In Yunnan, on the border with Myanmar, in Vietnam, on the border with China and Laos, and especially in the so-called Golden Triangle at the juncture of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, opium production flourished to the point of acquiring global relevance under the influence of colonial trade interests.

Through many decades, the Golden Triangle, led by Myanmar, has been competing with the 'Golden Crescent' --the poppy-growing region in and around Afghanistan, and originally including also Turkey -- for the position of the main opium-producing area in the world. In 2001, following the Taliban's destruction of opium fields in Afghanistan, the GMS --according to a UNESCO publication on cross-border drug use and HIV/AIDS vulnerability-- produced 76 percent of the world's opium: Myanmar 1,097 tonnes, Laos 134 tonnes and Thailand, six.

While the Golden Crescent services the Western hemisphere, the Golden Triangle supplies the Eastern hemisphere. Opium and heroin are delivered from Myanmar and Laos to neighbouring GMS countries and, from there, to other Asian countries and to Oceania. The largest transit and consumption market is China and to reach it, drugs are carried from the Golden Triangle directly across the borders to the provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi, or transported through circumventing routes via Cambodia and Vietnam.

The smooth circulation of opiates in the GMS may, however, be coming to a halt, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Its latest World Drug Report, issued on June 2007, stated: "South-east Asia is closing a tragic chapter that has blighted the Golden Triangle for decades - the region is now almost opium free", contributing no more than 5 percent of the global opium production. The no longer Taliban-ruled Golden Crescent has regained absolute primacy as the world's opium source, while, as the International Herald Tribune� puts it, the notorious Golden Triangle [has lost] sway in the opium trade".

Waning opium production, apart from being due to changing global dynamics, has also been attributed to local changes in Myanmar and Laos. UNODC reported that thanks to national anti-narcotics strategies and bans by local authorities, cultivation areas in Myanmar's Wa, Kachin and North Shan areas have declined by 34 percent in 2006, with the Wa region becoming an "opium-free zone". In Laos where opium cultivation was legal until 1996 intensive eradication programmes compelled by foreign donors have supposedly reduced the opium cultivation area by 90 percent, prompting the government to declare the country "virtually opium-free" in early 2006.

'Virtually' Opium-Free

The eagerness of national authorities and international agencies in proclaiming 'opium-free' status for localities in their custody is understandable in view of the many efforts they have made. Actual progress, however, may be more nuanced, as the same World Drug Report seems to suggest. On further reading, the decrease in opium cultivation area in Myanmar did not concern the entire country, as poppy-growing locations expanded in South and East Shan. What is more, in spite of the aggregated decline in opium cultivation area, total opium production actually slightly increased over the previous year from 312 to 315 tonnes, as farmers applied new technologies and farming methods, and climate conditions were favourable.

Contrary to previous years, growth was noted through 2006 in both opium cultivation area and production in Laos. In a years' time, the opium cultivation area increased by almost 40 percent from 1,800 to 2,500 hectares, and its potential production grew from 14 to 20 metric tonnes. Although these levels are still relatively low, there are concerns that opium eradication, if indeed achieved, may not be sustainable.

Some worrisome signs are already emerging, with Laos' Vientiane Times reporting in August that the opium-free status of Luang Namtha province and, thus, also of the country, "had been ruined" by villagers in remote districts who had planted about 40 hectares of opium. In the same article, officials admitted that wiping out the illicit crop was difficult since plantations were located in concealed and inaccessible valleys. For both Laos and Myanmar, opium cultivation remains an attractive option for farmer households in the uplands, where no alternative livelihoods strategies seem to work, especially now that prices have gone up due to the more limited production.

Shifts in production to other GMS countries also deserve to be taken into account. As a case in point, the U.S. Department of State, in its annual report on international narcotics control, notes for Vietnam a significant yearly increase in opium cultivation from 19 to 170 hectares in 2006 --although it is quick to add that this may be due to better documentation.

And, even if overall opium cultivation and production remains under control, it is not unlikely for the GMS to acquire a greater role as an opium trade hub due to the expansion of its road infrastructure, its more open borders, and its greater integration in the global market. China remains a major inter-shipment node and there are indications that opium from the Golden Crescent is being imported to compensate for the faltering production in the Golden Triangle. At the moment, the major route is through Central Asia, but the GMS may become an alternative route if conditions so require.

Entering the Crystalline Era

Irrespective of how much opium production has really contracted, the GMS remains a frontrunner in the global narcotics trade. In the opium eradication era, regional drug networks have found respite in chemicals comprising both basic materials and final products. The GMS' strategic developmental position in between two industrial giants is being exploited for sourcing from China and India the precursor chemicals needed for the production of heroin and Amphetamine-Type Stimulants or ATS, including amphetamine, Ecstasy, and especially tablet (憏aba� in Thai) and "ice" methamphetamine (crystal methamphetamine). The chemicals are then used in laboratories across the region, or traded across the globe.

Over the last decade, ATS -- first 憏aba� and more recently crystal methamphetamine-- have come to dominate drug consumption and trade in the GMS, becoming a truly regional phenomena with all the riparian countries firmly integrated in a region-wide value chain.

As with opium, the Golden Triangle, and especially Myanmar, is at the centre of an extensive web of trafficking routes to all corners of the GMS and to larger international markets. ATS main production base covers the mountainous border areas across Myanmar, Laos and Thailand and along the Mekong river, with laboratories also increasingly found in Vietnam, Cambodia and China.

Unlike opium, however, ATS are not as place-bound since they do not require a field to grow, and are easy to process and conceal. Their clandestine production and trade can take full advantage of the improved intra-regional infrastructures, with mobile laboratories traveling on roads and across borders to elude controls.

ATS also seem to better respond to the changed lifestyles of the people of the GMS. With Mekong countries opening up and their living standards improving, the use of synthetic recreational drugs is spreading fast. Methamphetamine tablets and increasingly crystals remain popular in Thailand -- even after the so-called "war on drugs" resulting in the unjustified death of more than 2,000 people, and their use is on a steady rise in the other GMS countries, with a dramatic upsurge among youth in urban and peri-urban areas. For Cambodia, a country until recently relatively untouched, the World Health Organisation reckons that of the 150,000 tablets entering the country daily, at least 50,000 are consumed only in the city of Phnom Penh.

Returning to my student, we could agree with the warning he makes in his paper: "When one reads in the newspapers or listens to customs officials say that Burma, Laos or other GMS countries claim another victory in the battle against opium, it is only one side of the story.�


(Thanks go to Philipp Borgs for allowing reference to his work and to Dr Charles Mehl of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation for providing useful comments. The author retains sole responsibility for the views expressed.)

*Rosalia Sciortino, better known as Lia, is a cultural anthropologist and development sociologist by training, who is currently working in Thailand as Associate Professor at the Institute for Population and Social Research, Mahidol University, and Visiting Professor at the Master in International Development at Chulalongkorn University. Before that, she was Regional Director of the Rockefeller Foundation Office for Southeast Asia in Bangkok, overseeing grant-making activities in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. She was also employed with the Ford Foundation in Indonesia and the Philippines, and has published widely on development issues. A native of Italy, she has lived in Asia for nearly two decades.

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Published: 03 Oct 2007


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