METHAMPHETAMINES AND MYANMAR
The production of and use of methamphetamines in Myanmar is a big problem. It is often made in jungle labs in Shan State. A former methamphetamine user in Yangon told the Los Angeles Times in 2012 the drug is so widespread that dealers will provide door-to-door delivery. While heroin is quite cheap at around $1 per injection in Myanmar, he said, methamphetamine prices have risen to upward of $12 per hit.
Amphetamines, particularly methamphetamine hydrochloride, have become increasingly popular around the world in recent years and are currently among the world’s most widely abused drugs, particularly in Asia. Methamphetamine is a highly addictive drug is known across Asia in pill form by the Thai name yaba ("crazy medicine") and in its purer crystalline form as ice or shabu. It is now the top drug in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime reported in 2011. By some estimates there are 30 million amphetamines users worldwide, compared to 13 million for cocaine and 8 million users of heroin. And, while cocaine and heroin use have declined, amphetamine use has increased.
Methamphetamine production in Myanmar really started to take off in the late 2000s as Afghanistan came to dominate the opium and heroin, which Myanmar had traditionally been known for. In 2007, the U.S. State Department said Myanmar was the the world’s largest source of methamphetamine pills. In 2010, Colonel Peeranate Gatetem, head of the Thai army's anti-drug Pha Muang task force, told The Guardian. This year will be the biggest for amphetamines," "In all of last year we intercepted 1.2 million pills. This year, in just six months, already we have seized 5 million.” He said they were uncovering what they believe to be only a tiny fraction of what is being brought across the border, by most estimates between 1 percent and 2 percent. "The amphetamine trade is huge now, we think it will be around 300 million to 400 million pills this year. But it is hard to know." [Source: Ben Doherty, The Guardian, June 21, 2010]
Sources from within Burma say the drug laboratories are working around the clock, with more under construction. In February, 15 smugglers were intercepted carrying 1.2m pills between them, and there have been reports of up to 30 Wa soldiers, in full uniform, marching through the forests fully laden.
Myanmar: One of the World’s Largest Meth Producers
In 2019, the International Crisis Group (ICG) reported that Myanmar’s Shan State was one of the world’s largest producers of crystal methamphetamine. Seizures in surrounding countries in 2017 and 2018— 1.6 tonnes in Indonesia, 1.2 tonnes in Malaysia, 788 kilograms kilograms in Thailand, 1.2 tonnes in Western Australia and 0.9 tonnes in Melbourne — are thought to have come from Shan State. Authorities in the region seized more than 25 tonnes of crystal meth in 2017, nearly all believed to have been produced in Myanmar. The Brussels-based ICG estimated that seizure rates are below 10 percent of a total production of 250 tonnes. “These record seizures are evidence of the scale of the problem rather than of any genuine success in addressing it,” the report says. “Despite massive seizures, prices of crystal meth have remained stable, a clear indication that they are a small proportion of total volumes.” [Source: ASEAN Post, January 12, 2019]
The restless Shan State has long been a global drug producer and for a while was the world’s main source of opium and heroin but it is a distant second behind Afghanistan. According to ASEAN Post: Shan State’s massive methamphetamine manufacturing and trafficking business thrives on its proximity to supplies of precursors — the chemicals needed for drug production — from across the Chinese border and huge local and regional markets for the drugs. The report claims that China, where most chemicals needed to make meth comes from, has almost never intercepted shipments crossing its border with Myanmar. ICG also called for China to “crack down” on the illegal trade of precursors across its southwestern border with Shan State.
High-level corruption and safe havens controlled by army-backed militias or non-state armed groups are other factors which facilitate this illicit and lucrative drug trade. In the Mekong sub-region which includes Cambodia, south-west China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, the meth trade's total value is estimated at over US$40 billion a year.
Website: Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia — UNODC unodc.org/documents
Methamphetamines, the Golden Triangle and Myanmar
The Golden Triangle is an area long associated with heroin manufacture and opium production. It is located where the borders of the Laos, Myanmar and Thailand converge along the Mekong River. Nowadays, the area is more associated with the illicit manufacture of synthetic drugs, such as methamphetamine and ketamine. It is now a distant second behind Afghanistan in heroin and opium production.
Production and trafficking of methamphetamine remain centered on eastern Shan State. The majority of methamphetamine pills manufactured in Myanmar are trafficked directly to Thailand or via Laos. Every year hundreds of millions of Myanmar-made methamphetamine pills are spirited across the river into Laos or down into Thailand. The trade is worth hundreds of millions of dollars — enough to corrupt poorly paid law enforcement officials across the region.
Myanmar's neighbors are its main markets. Up to 90 percent of the crystal meth seized in 2012 in Thailand — and an estimated 90 percent of meth pills seized in China — came from Myanmar, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has reported. Trafficking of amphetamines is dominated by regional syndicates, but organized crime gangs from Africa and Iran have continued to smuggle such drugs into the region, the agency said in 2012.
Methamphetamine Use in Southeast Asia
According to the UNODC: Recent household surveys conducted in East and Southeast Asia show that the number of past-year methamphetamine users was roughly 1.2 million (0.6 percent of the population aged 10–59) in Indonesia in 2017 and 860,000 (1.1 percent of the population aged 10–64) in the Philippines in 2016, while 652,000 people (1.3 percent of the population aged 12–65) in Thailand used methamphetamine tablets and an additional 372,300 people (0.7 percent of the population aged 12-65) used crystalline methamphetamine in 2019. [Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), World Drug Report 2021]
In Thailand, for which trend data on methamphetamine use were available for multiple years, there has been an increase in the use of methamphetamine, both in crystalline and tablet form, since 2008. However, the number of people in treatment for methamphetamine use disorders, who in 2019 accounted for nearly 87 percent of all people in treatment for drug use disorders in Thailand, declined from its peak of 278,000 in 2013 to fewer than 200,000 in 2019. In other countries in East and Southeast Asia, the number of drug treatment admissions and of people who use drugs registered or brought into formal contact with authorities for drug use are the only available indirect indicators of drug use, and both those indicators have limitations.
Statistics relating to the number of people in treatment may reflect the extent of referral of people for drug treatment, especially involuntary referrals or treatment, as well as the capacity of the treatment system. The number of people who use drugs registered in Southeast Asia, for example, is affected by the conditions that determine the registration process and the number of people brought into formal contact with the authorities and reflects the level of law enforcement activities in a given year. Nevertheless, the change in these indicators suggests an increased use of methamphetamine. In Viet Nam, for example, the proportion of people using methamphetamine who were registered with law enforcement authorities has increased considerably since 2015 and in 2020 accounted for 80 percent of all people who use drugs who are registered in the country.
Methamphetamines in Myanmar and Asia in the Early 2010s
The United Nation’s “Patterns and Trends of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants and Other Drugs: Challenges for Asia and the Pacific” said 2012 saw an increase in methamphetamine seizures and methamphetamine-related arrests, as well as the number of patients in drug treatment facilities. It said these are key indicators that point to a rise in the use of the drug, which is most commonly distributed in tablet form and is known locally as yama. [Source: Tim McLaughlin, Myanmar Times, November 8, 2013]
More than 18.2 million meth pills were seized in Myanmar in 2012, a massive increase over the 5.8 million seized in 2011 but below the record haul of 23.8 million in 2009. The report said 1815 people were arrested on meth pill related charges, a 15 percent increase over last year. Myanmar’s increasing methamphetamine problem is consistent with a growing market for ATS drugs in the Asia and Pacific region. Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam all reported increasing methamphetamine pill use in 2012. Though the number of people admitted to Yangon Mental Health Hospital for psychiatric treatment related to the use of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), including methamphetamine, has risen consistently over the past five years, just 68 people received treatment in 2012, the report said, citing statistics provided by the Myanmar Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control (CCDAC).
In November 2013, Jocelyn Gecker of Associated Press wrote: “Seizures of crystal meth and methamphetamine pills reached record highs in East and Southeast Asia in 2012, with Myanmar retaining its status as a major supplier of the illicit drugs, the UNODC said. The UNODC said methamphetamines were the primary or secondary drug of choice in 13 of the 15 Asia-Pacific countries surveyed. A total of 227 million methamphetamine pills were seized in the region in 2012 — a 59 percent increase from 142 million a year earlier, the report said. It marked a more than seven-fold increase from 2008. [Source: Jocelyn Gecker, Associated Press, November 8, 2013]
Many of the pills were seized in China (102.2 million), followed by Thailand (95.3 million) and Myanmar (18.2 million), the UNODC report said. In Thailand, the haul was nearly double the amount seized in 2011 and the second-largest ever recorded. "Methamphetamine remains the top illicit drug threat in East and Southeast Asia," said the report, covering a region that includes China and South Korea to Southeast Asia and Australia. "Seizures of methamphetamine in both pill and crystalline forms reached record highs there in 2012." The 11.6 tons of crystal meth seized across the region was the highest in a decade and a 12 percent increase from the year before. It included record hauls in Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia and Brunei.
Methamphetamine Production in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia is playing an increasingly prominent role in the global manufacture of synthetic drugs. According to the UNODC: An increase in the quantities of methamphetamine seized and a decrease in the retail price of the drug in East and Southeast Asia suggest that the supply of methamphetamine, in particular of crystalline methamphetamine, has expanded, with one possible repercussion being an increase in the number of people using methamphetamine. Several countries in the subregion, including Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Republic of Korea, have perceived an upward trend in the use of crystalline methamphetamine. [Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), World Drug Report 2021]
Some of the methamphetamine manufactured in Myanmar is also destined for other countries in the region (including Bangladesh, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand) as well as to Australia and Japan.At the same time, the manufacture of methamphetamine is expanding around the Golden Triangle, as well as in Cambodia and Viet Nam, partly as a result of large transnational organized crime syndicates moving from China to various other countries in the subregion in order to evade increasing law enforcement pressure in China in recent years and ensure illegal exports of methamphetamine to major high-value market destinations such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea, as well as to the rest of East and Southeast Asia. While pseudoephedrine and ephedrine continue to be the main precursors used in Southeast Asia, the example of a large-scale clandestine methamphetamine laboratory dismantled in 2019 in Viet Nam suggests that traffickers may have also started to use alternative precursors, such as P-2-P illicitly manufactured using APAA, to manufacture methamphetamine.
Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine remain the primary precursor chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamine in parts of Myanmar, as shown by recent information on methamphetamine profiling reported by countries in the region. For instance, China has reported that the forensic analysis of crystalline methamphetamine samples trafficked from the Golden Triangle in 2019 showed that 80 percent had been manufactured using the Emde method, which requires ephedrine or pseudoephedrine as starting materials. Data from other countries that seize substantial quantities of crystalline methamphetamine manufactured in the Golden Triangle area of Myanmar, such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, also confirm that the two substances are the main precursor chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. The surge in methamphetamine manufacture has required a parallel increase in the supply of the main methamphetamine precursors.
The average purity of crystalline methamphetamine in East and Southeast Asia remains high (typically between 65 and 95 percent in 2019) and has even been increasing in some countries. Thailand, for example, reported a typical retail purity of crystalline methamphetamine of about 95 percent in 2019, up from 80 percent in 2014. Moreover, the average retail purity of crystalline methamphetamine in Viet Nam increased from 68 percent in 2015 to 75 percent in 2019 and in Indonesia from 62 percent in 2016 to 77 percent in 2019.
Methamphetamine Production in Myanmar
Myanmar is the one of the largest producers of methamphetamines in the world, with the majority of yaba found in Thailand produced in Myanmar, particularly northeastern Shan State, which borders Thailand, Laos and China. Ethnic militias and rebel groups (in particular the United Wa State Army) are responsible for much of this production; however, the Burmese military units are believed to be heavily involved in the trafficking of the drugs. [Source: Wikipedia]
Methamphetamines are produced in the Golden Triangle areas of Myanmar and to a lesser extent Laos and Thailand. The jungles around the border town are Tachilek, Myanmar and Mae Sai, Thailand have traditionally been places where amphetamines producers set up mobile labs that churned out methamphetamine pills for 10 cents a piece and these in turn were sold to supplies who sell them for around 50 cents a piece By some estimates 50 or so drug laboratories in Myanmar were churning out 1 billion amphetamines tablets a year in the early 2010s, the majority of which were smuggled into Thailand. Some were later smuggled to other parts of Asia, Europe and the United States but a lot of it is consumed in Thailand.
The methamphetamine trade in the late 2000s and early 2010s was less centralized than the opium and heroin trade and had a lot more players who were more likely to get into bloody turf battles. There was much more violence and nastiness associated with with amphetamines production than with opium and heroin production. Even people in the lawless Golden Triangle were shocked by violence that amphetamines brought. At that time the police were more tolerant of opium production and trafficking than they were of amphetamines production and trafficking.
It was not uncommon for thugs in Thailand to carry out drug-related assassination in broad daylight without going through much trouble to hide their identity A missionary who worked in the Mae Sai area told Time, “So many people want to get rich—headmen, small farmers, tobacco growers—and they don’t understand the drug dealer’s code. There are fights over territory, over unpaid debts. Add the informers and the undercover agents, and it mayhem out there.”
Methamphetamines, the Myanmar Military and the United Wa State Army
Most of the methamphetamine labs in the 2000s and 2010s were in territory in Myanmar's Shan State controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which was allied with Myanmar ruling junta in the early 2010s. The UWSA is one of the largest and best-armed drug-dealing organizations in the world. The Wa produce large amounts of methamphetamines sold in Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Southeast Asia. The minority was long involved in the opium and heroin trade but now makes much more money from methamphetamines than from heroin. In the 1990s and 2000s the Wa moved from opium and heroin into amphetamines, which is easier to make and more profitable than opium or heroin and is more popular in Asia and arguably has more negative social consequences.
The Wa have had dozens of large amphetamine-making laboratories near the Thai border in Myanmar. The laboratories sometimes fill large building and are so sophisticated they can produce a million pills a day with chemicals supplied from China. The pills they manufacture often have a WY symbol for the United Wa State Army printed on one side and a 99 symbol, Thai shorthand for horse medicine on the other.
The Myanmar military regime is also believed to be involved in the drug trade. Raids on Burmese army outpost near the Thai border have uncovered large amounts of methamphetamine in army warehouses. See Generals and Drugs, Myanmar
Raids on amphetamines laboratories by the Myanmar military has been minimal with only token seizures. According to a U.S. State Department report. “With the exception of seizing modest amounts of tablets and closing a few labs, the government of Burma has not made a concerted effort to stop ATS [amphetamines] production and trafficking.”
Thai and Korean Cold Medicines and Myanmar Methamphetamine Production
Richard S. Ehrlich wrote in the Asia Sentinel: “Thailand is facing an epidemic of drug smuggling in a complex international racket that appears too massive and entrenched for authorities to stop." In April 2012, police discovered "nearly 50 million legal tablets to treat common ailments had been stolen from Thailand's hospitals, to make powerful speed drugs to sell to addicts. An additional 2 billion similar tablets to treat common colds have been smuggled in from Taiwan and South Korea, also to make illegal drugs, authorities said. [Source: Richard S. Ehrlich, Asia Sentinel, May 4, 2012 ///]
“Corrupt chemists and drug dealers have been extracting ephedrine and pseudoephedrine from legal cold remedies and similar medicines in Thailand and secretly shipping it across the border into Laos and Myanmar, where gangs use the ingredients to create a range of amphetamine-based drugs. Myanmar's drug gangs work among heavily armed minority ethnic insurgents including the Shan, Wa, and other tribes in the lawless, mountainous jungles near the border where the two countries meet. ///
“Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are used to widen bronchial passages and relieve asthma, hay fever, nasal congestion, allergies and the common cold but can also be a precursor chemical to manufacture methamphetamines. Officials estimate one legal cold tablet's ephedrine or pseudoephedrine can be cooked to make three or four methamphetamine pills, enabling gangs to rapidly multiply their output. The speed-like pills they make are then illegally smuggled back into Thailand and sold to users, or distributed to other countries. ///
“Investigators say they achieved a major breakthrough in February when they found big piles of empty wrappers for cold remedies — but no pills. Many of the empty packets were shredded and dumped in a northern forest near Chiang Mai city. The packets could have contained up to five million tablets from 10 different remedies, police said. Investigators traced the labels to several hospitals, where staff were suspected of siphoning off huge amounts of medicine from legal stocks in their pharmacies to sell to smugglers. The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) — Thailand's version of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation — joined police to question hospital staff, government officials, and others and were reportedly inspecting more than 875 hospitals. ///
"Up to 48.3 million cold pills are thought to have been stolen from [Thailand's] state hospitals and smuggled across the border to make methamphetamines," the Bangkok Post reported on March 29. A medicine purchasing staffer at one northern hospital allegedly confessed to forging his director's signature to order more than 210,000 tablets, the DSI said in April. In the latest case, Bangkok police searched a townhouse on Wednesday (May 2), discovered one million methamphetamine pills, and arrested two people, according to the Narcotics Suppression Bureau's Commander, Police Lt-Gen Chaiwat Chotima. The building was a secret storeroom for pills brought to the capital from northern Thailand, Lt-Gen Chaiwat said, but it was not immediately clear if the drugs were made from pilfered ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. ///
“Police meanwhile said they seized more than 200,000 speed pills in a truck at a supermarket's parking lot near Bangkok on April 13, just before the drugs were to be delivered to a dealer. Bigger discoveries in April came when the DSI said two Thai companies allegedly forged documents to smuggle at least 2 billion pseudoephedrine-based cold tablets to Bangkok from Taiwan in 2009, amid plans to bring in an additional 8 billion pills. The DSI said the two companies also bought 85 million cold tablets from South Korea, smuggling the medicine on nine separate flights to Bangkok, starting in 2010. False air cargo manifests allegedly deceived customs agents by describing the shipments as equipment for Thai companies which supplied electronics and automobile parts. One of the companies, which legally imports electronics, said it was innocent and blamed criminals for stealing its logo and company name to buy the tablets. ///
Methamphetamines Trafficking in Southeast Asia
The Golden Triangle is an area long associated with heroin manufacturing and opium production. It is located where the borders of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar and Thailand converge along the Mekong River. Nowadays, the area is more associated with the illicit manufacture of synthetic drugs, such as methamphetamine and ketamine, than opium and heroin. [Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), World Drug Report 2021]
Southeast Asia is playing an increasingly prominent role in the global trafficking in synthetic drugs. According to the UNODC: Expansion in methamphetamine trafficking continued in Southeast Asia in 2019 The quantities of methamphetamine seized in East and Southeast Asia increased twelvefold over the period 2009–2019, to 141 tons. In each year during that period, the largest quantities of methamphetamine seized in the subregion were reported by China, except in 2018 and 2019, when the largest quantities were seized by Thailand, which accounted for 38 percent of the total seized in the subregion in 2019, followed by China (18 percent), Myanmar (14 percent) and Indonesia (13 percent).
While the typical purity of methamphetamine tablets encountered in East and Southeast Asia has remained relatively stable in recent years (mostly within the range of 15–25 percent) and has even been increasing in a few countries over the past decade, retail prices of methamphetamine tablets have plummeted in several countries in East and Southeast Asia. When taken together with the increases in the quantities seized, this suggests that the supply of methamphetamine has increased and may have outstripped demand in the subregion.
Most of the methamphetamine available in East and Southeast Asia is sourced from within the subregion. The most frequently identified location of origin, departure and transit of methamphetamine shipments by countries and territories in East and Southeast Asia in the period 2015–2019 was Myanmar, followed by (in descending order of the number of mentions) China, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan Province of China, the United States, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Bangladesh, India and Cambodia. Other locations of origin, departure and transit from outside the region included Mexico and Nigeria. The role of China as a source country for methamphetamine, however, declined markedly between 2016 and 2019. The main destination for methamphetamine, as reported by 64 countries in East and Southeast Asia, was Malaysia,
Methamphetamine Trafficking in Myanmar
Myanmar-produced yaba is typically trafficked to Thailand via Laos, before being transported through the northeastern Thai region of Isan. In 2010, Burma trafficked 1 billion tablets to neighboring Thailand. In 2009, Chinese authorities seized over 40 million tablets that had been illegally trafficked from Burma. [Source: Wikipedia]
Thailand blames the United Wa State Army for being the major supplier of metamphetamines in Thailand. The methamphetamine pills are made for about five cents in Myanmar. Smugglers are paid about one three cents per pill to transport them across the border into Thailand or Laos. Much of the smuggling is done by local people anxious to make money to feed their families
After the methamphetamine pills are brought across the border into Thailand they are sold to larger dealers for around 30 cents a piece, They in turn sell them large dealers in Bangkok for about 50 cents. By the time they reach the streets of Bangkok they sell for between $2.50 and $6 a pill.
In the late 2000s and early 2010s, the methamphetamine trade was controlled by organized crime syndicates that were often run by or protected by powerful civilian or military figures. People in villages in along the Myanmar-Thai border are involved in production and smuggling. Once a village headmen was arrested with 1 million methamphetamine pills in his possession.
Methamphetamines Smuggling from Myanmar Into Thailand
Michael Sullivan of NPR said: Myanmar's Shan state, which borders both China and Thailand, is the wild wild east. And in many parts of the state, it's well-armed ethnic militias, not Myanmar's military, who call the shots. From safe havens in Myanmar the drugs then transported into Thailand and beyond — Australia, Japan and South Korea. And despite almost weekly reports of huge seizures of tons of drugs, the price on the street isn't going up. It's going down because there's so much of it, and it's so easy to get to market. [Source: Michael Sullivan, All Things Considered, NPR July 4, 2019]
In the areas controlled by the militias, the drugmakers are cooking up a storm. I'm on a riverbank in Myanmar's southern Shan state. The labs where the drugs are produced — just a few hours up the road. But this area is relatively flat and exposed — not ideal for moving big shipments. That happens mostly in the mountains 30 miles to the north where the thick jungle and rugged terrain offer better cover for smugglers. On this day, army lieutenant Chatuphum Kankoi is leading a patrol through a stream on a jungle path high in the mountains on the Thai-Myanmar border. And I'm about to cross the river into northern Thailand. This is an informal crossing on a small river that separates the two countries in the infamous Golden Triangle. This river is so narrow, I could easily throw a rock across or something bigger. But it's not quite as easy as it sounds because of regular Thai army patrols on this side of the river, even when it's raining.
Jeremy Douglas, regional director for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Bangkok, told NPR: We've seen organized crime consolidate the business and scale production to something we've never seen in fact anywhere globally. For 10 years, we've been setting records. But over the last five, it's been huge records, all sourced back to the same common point where organized crime has set up operations in safe havens.
Sergeant Major Jakwong Seubthap told NPR: The smuggling gangs who operate during the nighttime, they won't come across during the day because they know we're here. His boss, Colonel Wudtiphat Pruchtakkorn, says even though the army patrols at night, too, they can't be everywhere. “The smugglers will just come across where we aren't. Right now, it's very easy for them to operate. So when they cross into Thailand, they share the location to people who come pick up the drugs.”
The smugglers usually come across in groups of 10 or more, he says, each man carrying a backpack which can hold up to 200,000 pills or 10 kilograms of crystal meth. Colonel Wudtiphat Pruchtakkorn says the smugglers use local hill tribe members as couriers. Nobody knows these mountains like they do," he says. "They're perfect for this job." The smugglers also use high-tech equipment like drones to avoid patrols like this one.
Combating the Meth Trade in Myanmar and Southeast Asia
According to the UNODC: Security challenges and limited precursor control are facilitating methamphetamine manufacture and trafficking in Southeast Asia. The quantities of methamphetamine seized in Southeast Asia and neighbouring East Asia have increased significantly in recent years, reaching a record 141 tons in 2019, which represents a 119 percent increase compared with 2015 and suggests an increase in the manufacture of and trafficking in the drug in East and Southeast Asia. Although all countries in the subregion are affected by the surge in the supply of methamphetamine, the problem appears to have been much more pronounced in the five countries located in the Lower Mekong Basin (Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam). [Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), World Drug Report 2021]
These countries account for about 10 percent of the total population of East and Southeast Asia;a however, the quantities of methamphetamine seized on their territory (85 tons) accounted for 61 percent of the subregional total in 2019. The large share of the quantities seized in the Lower Mekong Basin is primarily the result of a consolidation of methamphetamine manufacture into autonomous parts of Shan State and the special regions of Myanmar, otherwise known as the Golden Triangle, where there are security and accessibility issues. In turn, this situation may have created an environment conducive to the involvement of armed groups and militia in the manufacture of and trafficking in different drugs; initially opiates, followed by methamphetamine tablets and crystalline methamphetamine, which has brought profound changes to illicit drug markets in Asia and the Pacific.
The quantities of methamphetamine and its precursors seized are not consistent, suggesting that the capacity to identify and intercept methamphetamine precursors is lower than that to identify and intercept the drug itself. The quantities of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine intercepted in Myanmar and neighbouring countries are miniscule in comparison with the amounts needed to support the manufacture of the quantities of methamphetamine estimated to have originated in Myanmar that are seized in the region, let alone the quantities that are likely being manufactured but not seized.
Between 2015 and 2019, an estimated 65 tons of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine would have been required annually to manufacture the amount of purity-adjusted methamphetamine seized annually during the period in East and Southeast Asia. This compares to an annual average amount of 456 kilograms of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine seized in Myanmar during that period. While it cannot be assumed that Myanmar is the source of all methamphetamine seized in the area, it is likely to account for a large share; the small amount of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine seized in the country suggests a significantly low interception of these precursors in Myanmar and possibly an increasing use of non-controlled chemicals in the manufacture of methamphetamine. This discrepancy suggests that the criminal groups behind methamphetamine manufacture have been able to successfully circumvent existing regulatory mechanisms to source ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, and/or that they are illicitly manufacturing the two substances using non-controlled chemicals and pre-precursors.
Given the potentially large scale of methamphetamine manufacture in Myanmar, it is likely that substantial quantities of controlled and non-controlled chemicals have been diverted and trafficked into drug-manufacturing areas and shipped from or through neighbouring countries. For example, the amounts of unidentified chemicals seized in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic have increased significantly in recent years, from 4.3 tons in 2015 to 133 tons in 2020, suggesting a dramatic increase in the interception of such chemicals, although these quantities may still be insignificant given the quantities potentially needed for the scale of methamphetamine manufacture likely taking place in the area. A combination of factors is most likely providing organized crime groups with ideal conditions for the illicit manufacture of and trafficking in methamphetamine and its precursors in Myanmar.
It has been argued that governance challenges related to autonomous and special regions of Myanmar and insecurity in parts of the country have been conducive to an expansion of methamphetamine manufacture,f in addition to limited precursor control in some parts of the sub-region in general.
20 Million Methamphetamine Pills Seized in Golden Triangle Drug Raid
In August 2017, Myanmar authorities said they seized 20 million meth tablets, 600,000 ecstasy and 9.1 kilograms of heroin in the heart of the 'Golden Triangle', in one of the biggest drug busts ever in the region. Authorities raided four homes in Tachileik, a border town in Myanmar's Shan State next to Thailand and a regular way station for drugs bound for the Southeast Asian market. "Myanmar's police force is investigating the case and will take action against the four people arrested," Tachileik authorities said. [Source: AFPAugust 9, 2017
AFP reported: Each methamphetamine pill goes for between $2-5 in Myanmar. But its value surges as it is transported from the warlord-run drug labs pumping out Southeast Asia's favourite high across the border into Thailand and beyond. In the haul were five bags of caffeine -- which is laced into the meth pills known as "yaba". Police and soldiers also seized moulds used to brand the stimulants, including some with the '999' and 'WY' logos of drug labs belonging to the heavily-armed Wa ethnic group. The North and South Wa share a self-governing state.
“The drugs were likely bound for Thailand, which lies just across the border and is a major market. Low-level mules are often arrested, or gunned down in clashes with Thai officers along the jungle-covered border. Thai and Laos authorities have arrested several alleged 'kingpins' in recent months linked to the trade, rare moves against those higher up the food chain in the drug trade. But analysts say the overall drug battle is hampered by endemic official corruption as well as the ability of syndicates to bounce back from raids by ramping-up production.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
Last updated April 2022