Mekong nations tighten anti-drug blitz

Mekong nations tighten anti-drug blitz

The Mekong region is no longer a mysterious place, as it has now become the world's main hub of illicit drugs across multiple frontiers. Last month, anti-drug officials from riparian countries -- Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, China -- and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDODC) met in a series of meetings in Bangkok to forge a new political agreement and plan that would strengthen their cooperation to address the deteriorating drug situation.

Thailand has been successful in destroying drug-producing sites along border areas. However, illicit drugs still flow into the country and go through neighbouring countries. The large amount of drug seizures inside Thai territory is extremely alarming. As such, Thailand needs to further strengthen cooperation with other Mekong riparian countries to map out common strategies to increase cross-border investigation and operation.

The meetings were initiated under the 1993 Mekong Memorandum of Understanding on Drug Control, bringing together the six countries, with the UNODC providing secretariat and technical support to the Mekong MOU process. It is one of the longest standing narcotic suppression efforts among the riparian countries and has been going on for 26 years.

The Thai host organised the meetings following reports of an increase in production, trafficking and use of illicit drugs and precursor chemicals across the Mekong. Of late, the fertile but delicate region has been in the headlines due to strategic competition among major powers trying to deepen their cooperation with riparian countries in all areas. The meetings also came amid a clear indication that transnational organised crime syndicates have moved their operations into the Golden Triangle following a recent clampdown by China.

The Mekong MOU is unique as signatories voluntarily mobilise their own efforts and national resources in addressing the drug problem and its consequences in the Mekong region. It focuses on strengthening the capacity of government officials for effectively addressing the drug problem in each country and the whole region.

According to Thailand's Office of the Narcotics Control Board, a number of major projects have long been implemented, such as controls on precursor chemicals, the establishment of Border Liaison Offices (BLOs) and the Synthetics Monitoring: Analyses, Reporting and Trends, or SMART, programme. The latter programme has now been expanded and developed as the Global SMART Programme, which helps to promote understanding and effective assessment of the synthetic drugs situation and the patterns of their distribution and use all over the world.

At the Bangkok meetings, the Mekong countries also adopted two important documents -- the Bangkok Declaration: Effectively Responding to the Drug Problem in the Mekong, and the 11th Sub-Regional Action Plan on Drug Control (May 2019-May 2021). It is important to note that the declaration reaffirms the joint commitment of member countries to address the drug problem in the Mekong region. Most importantly, they have to do it in line with the principle of common and shared responsibility, the three international drug control conventions, and other relevant UN documents, as well as areas agreed under the regional action plan.

The Bangkok Declaration enhances the BLOs and their ability to exchange information, interdict illicit drugs and control precursor chemicals. All the riparian countries also agreed to strengthen drug demand reduction by ensuring easy access to treatment and rehabilitation. In addition, efforts to promote the capacity of government officials in drug control must be enhanced.

In the case of the regional action plan, there are four key priority areas: drugs and health, law enforcement cooperation, legal and judicial cooperation, and sustainable alternative development. These selected areas are shaped by world drug control policy, which focuses on people's health, well-being and security in line with the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In retrospect, the notorious Golden Triangle -- where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet -- has been a source of drugs and trafficking since the 1950s. But the worrisome trend these days is the unprecedented level of synthetic drugs, especially methamphetamine (meth), known locally as ya ba, which has been traced to the area.

Last year, record amounts of tablets and crystal meth were seized across the Mekong, due to low prices and easy access not seen for the past 20 years. Last year Thailand seized 515 million meth tablets, 17 times the total amount for the Mekong region a decade ago. At the same time, Thailand also seized more than 18 tonnes of crystal meth, more than the East and Southeast Asia regional total of five years ago, UNODC records showed.

In response, Thai authorities began intense suppression campaigns along the borders in the Golden Triangle, resulting in the rerouting of drug shipments. Now the new route is through southern Myanmar, seeking entrance to Thailand along its western border or out via the Andaman Sea, and overland to Laos and Vietnam. According to the UNODC, during the first half of 2019, the drug seizure in these areas have already surpassed 2018 totals. Preliminary data for 2019 indicates that the region has already seized more crystal meth than in 2018.

UNODC Regional Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific Jeremy Douglas was succinct stating that the increase of synthetic drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle is now considered an international problem. Myanmar's northern Shan State has been identified as a hub of meth production due to its remoteness. Mr Douglas also said that the organised crime syndicates behind the trade are able to maintain production even if labs are seized, and that new precursors can be used when others are unavailable.

In Bangkok, the Mekong countries agreed to focus on dampening market demand through preventive education and addressing health, harm and social consequences. To achieve these objectives, they have to increase cross-border operations, joint training and justice cooperation. In addition, continued support for impoverished opium farmers in Myanmar and Laos is necessary to turn them away from the drug economy.

Another alarming trend is an increase in the amount of money being laundered. Recent estimated values of the regional meth market have reached US$61.4 billion per year and the heroin market up to US$10.3 billion. In particular, organised crime syndicates have been seeking and using new and innovative ways to launder increasing profits, including through hundreds of casinos set up in the frontier areas of the Gold Triangle.

From now on, cooperation among intelligence and border law enforcement officials will be stronger, as they have adopted a common strategy to increase cross-border investigations and operations, which used to be problematic. With better synergy among the six riparian countries, ya ba suppression could produce better results.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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