Drug traffic is worsening
An anti-drug effort currently underway brings together and melds the traffic-fighting policies of four countries — Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and China which share the Mekong River. Drug agents call their experiment the Safe Mekong Coordination Centre. The headquarters are in Chiang Mai, where drug-busting efforts have been centred for 50 years. In that half-century anti-drug forces have killed hundreds, jailed thousands and spent millions. And last week they admitted the twin problems of drug trafficking and abuse are worsening.
Surprisingly, it was the Chinese who opened up. A white paper issued by Beijing reported that synthetic drugs originating in the Golden Triangle area have become the most common form of drug abuse. The Chinese government said tablets like ya ba (methamphetamine) and ecstasy are used by a majority of addicts and abusers. Until now, heroin had been the addicts' choice for decades.
China has found out what Thailand has known for years. Amphetamine-type drugs (ATD) are a major and serious switch from the opioids that used to be popular for both trafficking and addiction. Methamphetamines in particular are stimulants that fuel rage and violence among abusers. And as last week's China study astutely pointed out, drug abusers are typically low-information individuals, and believe that ATDs are non-addictive and therefore less harmful to themselves than heroin.
Since the Safe Mekong project began, its founders and supporters — particularly Justice Minister Gen Paiboon Koomchaya — have trumpeted its achievements. Seizures along the river have increased; a plan is under way to intercept shipments of drug precursors from abroad, many of which are so-called "dual purpose chemicals" that are made and consumed in the four riparian allies.
That is not the only way that governments and business inadvertently, or accidentally, help the multi-billion baht industry of illicit drugs. Officials have discovered that the greatest benefit of the new Myanmar-Laos Friendship Bridge is to drug traffickers. The bridge was built and opened last month right inside the Golden Triangle. It has quickly turned into a popular route for moving drugs out of Myanmar on the way to both neighbouring countries and far-flung destinations.
No one doubts that governments would love to end drug trafficking, close the factories and incarcerate the last kingpin of one of the world's dirtiest businesses. But sometimes it seems otherwise.
After five decades of trying, drug precursors still are largely unregulated and easily obtained by the drug cartels. The sheer impossibility of searching thousands of trucks means that new roads and bridges are as much help to criminals as to traders and tourists.
Last week, as China was reporting anew that drug abuse was out of control, the Thai government burnt seven tonnes-plus of seized illicit drugs, mostly ATD.
In Laos and Myanmar, there were similar celebrations marking the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. Tens of millions of ya ba tablets were destroyed. Clearly, there is plenty more where those came from.
A serious anti-drug effort must be holistic. Thai authorities have promised better educational and treatment facilities, but they remain just out of reach. The prisons are full. Even Thaksin's illegal campaign of extra-judicial killings had only a temporary effect.
Friends and neighbours must convince Myanmar to close the drug factories. This is just one step, but it is a clear one and not so difficult. So long as huge supplies of ATDs pour out of Myanmar, the difficult job of effectively fighting trafficking and abuse will remain impossible.