Asia’s Growing Scourge: Methamphetamines

Yaba begins to replace heroin as the drug of choice

By: Michele Penna

Mammoth seizures of crystal methamphetamines in February and April by authorities in Myanmar’s Shan state are a reminder that Covid-19 isn’t the only epidemic affecting Southeast Asia. A much older plague keeps on killing thousands both locally and internationally.

In a series of raids on production facilities, police found 500 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine – nearly 200 million methamphetamine tablets, the notorious yaba, or “crazy medicine” as the substance is known in neighboring Thailand, and 163,000 liters of precursor chemicals used in their manufacture.

 “What has been unearthed through this operation is truly off the charts, and it is clear that a network of production facilities like those found would not be possible without the involvement and financial backing of serious transnational organized criminal groups,” said Jeremy Douglas, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) regional representative.

Police also seized almost 3,750 liters of liquid methylfentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid, one of a group of drugs proving increasingly deadly around the world. Over the past two decades, more than 400,000 people are believed to have died due to opioid overdose in the US alone, with death rates increasing by 10 percent from 2017 to 2018 according to the US Center for Disease Control.

The operation has once again put the spotlight on Myanmar’s northern and north-eastern provinces, densely forested, sometimes isolated and wrecked by the world’s longest running civil conflict. Since World War II, the central military has been battling a host of insurgent groups demanding various degrees of autonomy. Although this complex insurgency has mutated over the decades, for instance with the rise and subsequent demise of the Communist Party of Burma, or with a series of ceasefires signed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the conflict has never really stopped and over the past decade, battles have been fierce.

This turbulent history provides fertile ground for drug production. Over the years, the legendary Golden Triangle, the area where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet, has become synonymous with shady businesses and poppy fields.

The Myanmar government has not just been incapable of eradication. It has willfully turned a blind eye to drug production, especially since the creation of various militias allied with the armed forces, who are allowed to do business – including of the illicit variety – as long as they don’t fight. Khun Sa, the legendary commander of the Mong Tai Army, who rose to prominence in the 1970s as one of the world’s most notorious drug lords, ended his life in Yangon, keeping his wealth and reportedly accompanied by multiple mistresses.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that a major raid carried out in March took place in an area controlled by the Kaungkha militia, known also as the Kachin Defense Army, which broke away from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of the country’s largest rebel groups.

The KIA’s approach to drug users and producers, by contrast, can only be described as harsh. Within the area they administer, on the border with China, drug users are routinely imprisoned. In the rest of Kachin State, much of which is government-controlled, they back the Pat Jasan, squads of self-appointed law enforcement personnel who chase and punish addicts. Once one is caught, he or she is arrested, often beaten and forced to undergo rehab.

The practice, which for a time gained notoriety on the international media, is defended by Kachin leaders and the Pat Jasan as a necessity. Heroin in particular poses too much of a threat to their communities, which they say have been abandoned by the central authorities to fend for themselves.

But even though Myanmar remains the second-biggest producer of opium in the world after Afghanistan, les fleurs du mal are not as fashionable as they used to be. Production declined 11 percent in 2019, while over the past four years prices paid to farmers fell 63 percent and 51 percent for fresh and dry opium, according to the UNODC. By contrast, meth use has skyrocketed, with UN estimates placing the drug’s retail market value in the Asia-Pacific region between US$30.3 billion and US$61.4 billion annually.

Methamphetamine has become the drug of choice in the region, consumed both by partygoers looking for an affordable high and by laborers who take it stay awake on the job. Producers have followed suit. The gargantuan gains generated by this trade, however, hardly end in the pockets of locals. Just as with opium before, it is international criminals who get to keep the largest slice of the cake. “Big international syndicates already active in the Golden Triangle are well-positioned to take advantage of regional heroin demand and produce synthetic opioids alongside other drugs,” said Douglas.

These include so-called Sam Gor, a giant organization reportedly headed by Tse Chi Lop, a Canadian national born in mainland China who is rumored to have lost US$66 million in one night at a casino in Macau. Reuters, which published an in-depth report on the group last year, quoted UNODC as saying that Sam Gor’s meth business might have made between US$8 billion and $17.7 billion in 2018, numbers worthy of a massive global commerce conglomerate.

And even though police from all corners of the world appears to be after them, the future does not look too bleak for the new drug lords of Southeast Asia. While seizures grow and set new records, prices on the streets are going down - a sign, observers say, that ever more drugs are entering the market.