Thailand and its neighbours in the Golden Triangle have experienced a continuous expansion of drug production, trafficking and use, particularly of synthetic drugs, for the better part of a decade. Last year, seizures of harmful methamphetamine in East and Southeast Asia reached 140 tons with the vast majority produced in Mynmar’s Shan State across the border from Chiang Rai Thailand.
With the rise of production there, borders with Northern Thailand and Laos have become one of the most significant drug trafficking points in the world.
It is estimated that drug production and trafficking in the region last year generated profits of at least US$71 billion (2.2 trillion baht), with methamphetamine accounting for US$61 billion (1.9 trillion baht), four times what it was six years ago.
At this point, the production and trafficking of methamphetamine is the financial backbone of transnational organised crime groups and the armed ethnic groups they partner with. They now control control autonomous territories in Myanmar, fuelling conflict and insecurity in the country and along its borders including with Thailand.
In addition, despite record amounts of methamphetamine seizures, the supply has surged and the price of the drug has recently dropped to its lowest point in a decade. One methamphetamine tablet, known as ya ba, currently costs only about 50 baht in the northern area of Thailand, making the drug much more accessible for users or potential users.
Rise in Methamphetamine Use in Thailand
In part as a result of the low street price and affordability, Thailand has seen a significant increase in usage, particularly among youths. Considering 80% of people in the Thai prison population are incarcerated due to methamphetamine-related charges, it is evident that increased trafficking and decreased prices of the drug have accelerated and exacerbated criminal justice system and related human rights challenges in the country.
The government has engaged in a multi-pronged approach to address the drug trade, with different law enforcement agencies engaged in counter-trafficking strategies, and parallel tracks of education and awareness-raising programs for prevention. As well as treatment and health-service delivery. Non-government agencies (NGOs) have been key partners in supporting alternative livelihoods required for sustainable development.
Border Liaison Offices supported by UNODC have been an important component in border management and control in the region, as well as a practical mechanism to enhance cross-border cooperation between authorities. Coordination efforts between police, customs, army, navy and border patrol officials in the region have gathered and exchanged intelligence to take on organised criminal groups.
Employing new technologies including X-ray devices, from hand-held to lorry-sized machines, Thai authorities have new tools to be used against illicit trafficking, including of drugs and precursor chemicals — vital to countering the destructive trade.
Agriculture is Chiang Rai’s Main Employer
Covid-19 has exacerbated the already significant development challenges facing the province, northern Thailand as a whole and the Golden Triangle. Tourism has been hit hard by restrictions on movement and a lack of international tourists contributing to the local economy. Some workers in the sector have been able to find temporary work in agriculture. Which accounts for 80% of employment in Chiang Rai.
The number of border checkpoints has been increased in response to Covid-19, reducing the transit of drugs through the province. However, criminal networks have very quickly adapted — traffickers have changed their routes to circumvent Chiang Rai and go through other provinces or via Laos and back into Thailand, with marginal increased costs and inconvenience affecting the trade.
To sustainably change, the reliance of communities on drug production and the corrosive impacts of illicit trafficking require going beyond a law enforcement response and engaging the social and economic dynamics. Hill tribe villages have been engaged through civil society and social entrepreneurs, including the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, to move from opium production to alternative cash crops.
More innovative support of this kind will help affected communities in the Golden Triangle in Thailand, neighbouring countries and beyond to move from drug value chains to sustainable livelihoods. There is a stark need for more alternative livelihoods and crops in agriculture-dependent communities, if they are to be a part of sustainable development.