Drug trade in Golden Triangle grows despite pandemic

Drug trade in Golden Triangle grows despite pandemic

The solution is community development, write Gita Sabharwal and Jeremy Douglas

Thai and Lao drug busters patrol the Mekong River in Chiang Saen district of Chiang Rai to thwart drug trafficking in a campaign that also includes Myanmar and China. 
Thai and Lao drug busters patrol the Mekong River in Chiang Saen district of Chiang Rai to thwart drug trafficking in a campaign that also includes Myanmar and China. 

Thailand, in cooperation with key stakeholders like the UNODC, has over recent decades made considerable progress in combating the opium trade in the Golden Triangle -- the point at which Thailand meets Myanmar and Laos. From the military base at Doi Chang Mub overlooking Myanmar, joint patrols are conducted on a regular basis to counter trafficking.

The progress represents good global practice. However, in place of opium, the cross-border trade of synthetic drugs, particularly methamphetamine, has grown substantially.

In a visit to Chiang Rai last month, with the support of the Office of Narcotics Control Board (ONCB), we met people in government, civil society and academia to understand the challenges and opportunities the province now faces in meeting sustainable development goals (SDGs).

In our meetings, we were impressed with local and sustainable development efforts in line with the SDGs. It struck home how integrally linked development and improving people's livelihoods are to fighting the drug trade and the corrosive effects drug abuse and criminality have on individuals and their communities. While there are considerable challenges, particularly during the pandemic, we were also inspired by the community resilience and commitment to improve the welfare of all.

Thailand and its neighbours along the Mekong River 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 tonnes with the vast majority produced in Mynmar's Shan State across the border from Thailand. With the rise of production there, borders with 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.

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 programmes 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.

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 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.

Gita Sabharwal is the UN Resident Coordinator in Thailand and Jeremy Douglas is the UNODC Representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

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