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UN Says Methamphetamine Production in Southeast Asia Has Reached Record High

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CHIANG RAI – Production of methamphetamine (Yaba) is skyrocketing in Southeast Asia, with prices dropping and usage expanding, the U.N.’s anti-drug agency reports.

Even as seizures of the drug known as speed, ice and “ya ba” in its various forms reached a record high last year, street prices have dropped, indicating increased availability, said a report released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The agency said methamphetamine has become the main drug of concern in 12 out of 13 East and Southeast Asian countries, up from five a decade ago. The only exception was Vietnam, where heroin is considered the major problem.

In Thailand alone, 515 million methamphetamine tablets were seized in 2018, 17 times the total amount of the drug seized a decade ago in all 13 countries combined, the U.N. agency said.

Much of the supply comes from neighboring Myanmar in the area known as the Golden Triangle . The meth industry in the Shan State, located near the borders of China, Thailand, and Laos, now brings in so much money that this illicit economy dwarfs the money made by legitimate industries, the report found.

“Data on seizures, prices, use and treatment all point to continuing expansion of the methamphetamine market in East and Southeast Asia,” said Tun Nay Soe, the agency’s inter-regional program coordinator.

The report warns that organized crime groups in the region have stepped up their involvement in making and trafficking methamphetamine and other drugs in the Golden Triangle, the region where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet that has historically been a major source of opium and heroin.

It said the drug market in East and South-East Asia had shifted from such opiates to methamphetamine since the latter part of the 2000s.

“The shift to methamphetamine has affected even countries traditionally known to have a relatively large market for heroin, such as China and Malaysia,” it said. “In Malaysia, the number of methamphetamine users detected by law enforcement authorities surpassed that of heroin users for the first time in 2017.”

In another indicator of the methamphetamine epidemic, medical treatment related to its use dominated the number of drug-related admissions in several East and Southeast Asian countries, the report said.

The drug agency warned that other synthetic drugs were also gaining traction in Asian markets.

The amount of drugs is so staggering that UNODC made the Golden Triangle meth trade a focus of a special regional coordination meeting in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw in May of last year. At the time, UNODC had estimated that the meth trade was worth some $40 billion USD annually.

Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative for UNODC in Southeast Asia, was pretty frank in his assessment of the issue, pointing out that the industry had been allowed to grow thanks to the “conditions” in northern Myanmar— namely a state of relative lawlessness and a well-established patronage network of corruption and protection.

“Ensuring governance and the rule of law will be crucial to any long-term reduction in drug production and trafficking,” Douglas said, according to Reuters.

“To be candid, it also means addressing the corruption, conditions, and vulnerabilities that allow organized crime to keep expanding operations.”

That kind of money is sure to breed corruption, especially in a place run by a network of loosely affiliated armed groups operating under a fragile—and occasionally violated—peace agreement. The sheer amount of money to be made in Shan State has also created a sticky problem standing in the way of lasting peace, the International Crisis Group report concluded.

“But if the drugs trade is partly a symptom of Shan State’s conflicts, it’s also an obstacle to sustainably ending them,” the report read. “Militias and other armed actors that control areas of production and trafficking routes have a disincentive to demobilize, given that weapons, territorial control, and the absence of state institutions are essential to those revenues…

“Myanmar’s military, which has ultimate authority over militias and paramilitaries and profits from their activities, can only justify the existence of such groups in the context of the broader ethnic conflict in the state—so the military also has less incentive to end that conflict.”

The military and authorities in Myanmar need to get serious about rooting out corruption and severing ties with militias that have known meth connections, the report argued.

Until then Shan State will continue to be one of the world’s biggest, and quietest, narco states.

Source: The Associated Press, Reuters