Escalating the Mekong War on Drugs

The seizure yesterday of more than a million methamphetamine tables worth more than Bt200 million (US$6.2 million) being smuggled from Myanmar into Thailand is the latest episode in an intensifying war against drugs by six countries along the Mekong River Basin.

The meth pills were being transported via the Ruak River bordering Thailand and Myanmar in Chiang San District of the province by two men in a boat. Officials acting on a tip identified themselves and demanded to inspect of the bags but the suspects jumped into the river and swam back to Myanmar’s territory. The drugs were believed being delivered by middlemen to retail dealers in Thailand.

Drugs have been a perennial problem in many of the Mekong countries. One of the biggest problems, and a seemingly insoluble one, is that much of the drug trade is believed controlled by top officials in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and other countries.

Thailand has struggled with proliferating amounts of ya ba, a mixture of methamphetamines and caffeine, which is cheap and readily available throughout the country and a favorite of truck drivers to keep rolling long past the hours when they should be resting. Myanmar, particularly in the Golden Triangle, has long been the source of a major amount of the world’s opium and increasingly its methamphetamines.

Faced with a rapid expansion of illicit drug markets and seizures in both China and Southeast Asia, regional drug control officials from the Mekong states – Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam – and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime held a press conference last week to call for more coordinated anti-drug operations and strategies to fight the rapidly growing rise in production, trafficking and use of meth and other opiates.

China has pledged what a senior official of the Ministry of Public Security called “significant Chinese support for regional cooperation.”

China awakened dramatically to the problems of drugs on the Mekong in October of 2011 when 13 Chinese sailors were killed and their bodies dumped in the river by four suspects from Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. The murders were believed to have been committed by pirates who believed the cargo was drugs.

Beijing responded furiously, first suspending shipping down the Mekong and then by sending its gunboats unannounced down the river to provide its ships with armed escorts from Chinese waters into foreign waters, a move that concerned some of its neighbors and the international community.

Eventually authorities caught up with the four, who were ordered executed by China's Intermediate People's Court of Kunming. Two others were given a death sentence with reprieve and eight years in prison, respectively. Some 300 spectators were present at the verdict, including relatives of the victims, media, and diplomats from Laos and Thailand.

Later, China's security forces extended their reach into Southeast Asia by uniting the countries along the Mekong into the "war on drugs," arresting hundreds in the infamous Golden Triangle. In December 2011 China, Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand began joint patrols on the Mekong after a security agreement was reached among the four countries, with more than 200 Yunnan Province border police taking part. It was the first such joint deployment in Southeast Asia and was regarded as a substantial expansion of China's growing role in regional security.

However, the aggressive and assertive action has added fuel to concerns about Chinese extension of its hegemony in the Mekong basin, corresponding to its so-called “nine-dash line” taking in much of the South China Sea. The 2011 incident occurred under Thai foreign jurisdiction. Sending an armed force into foreign territory can be misconstrued as an act of war, or at the very least, an unwelcomed incursion. The Thais backed off without criticizing the aggressive action.

Nonetheless, “illicit drugs undermine development and pose a growing and significant threat to China and our Greater Mekong Sub-region neighbors,” Liu Yuejin, the Deputy Permanent Secretary General of the National Narcotics Control Commission in China’s Ministry of Public Security, told the press conference last week. “Greater regional cooperation is important as our countries face enormous pressures from drug trafficking.”

“Methamphetamine production is now the major drug threat in the region while at the same time opium poppy cultivation in the Golden Triangle has rebounded significantly over recent years, and rising drug seizures suggest the market is expanding,” said Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific for the US drugs and crime office.

Douglas warned that the problem of illegal drugs could grow as regional integration and transportation plans for the Greater Mekong Sub-region and Southeast Asia are implemented.

Potential users in China, Thailand and other markets for illicit drugs in the region have rising disposable incomes and are targeted by organized crime, Douglas said. “Meanwhile Mekong sub region countries are more easily accessed than ever before. Traffickers are able to rapidly adapt smuggling routes in and out of the Golden Triangle in response to market demand and law enforcement patterns.

“Drug-related arrests are the overwhelming majority of arrests for states across the region,” Douglas said.

China is chairing the 2014 senior officials meeting, which brought together drug control officials from China, the other Mekong countries and the UN drugs office.