The synthetic drug market in Southeast Asia continues to expand and diversify, with the drug trafficking industry becoming ever more rampant. The increasing trend towards greater chemical purity, combined with falling prices of synthetic drugs to their lowest level in ten years, as a result of an increase in supply and demand, have been the main catalysts for a rapid and sizeable increase in the size of the synthetic drug industry globally (UNODC, 2020b; UNODC, 2020c). The industry is so pervasive that a global pandemic has failed to dampen its power (Reuters, 2020). Production and trafficking of synthetic drugs and their precursor chemicals continue at record levels (UNODC, 2020b). The situation is particularly acute in the Golden Triangle, a global centre for illicit drug production. This area is a quasi-lawless region in the border area of Myanmar, China, Thailand, and Laos. Various corridors between Thailand and surrounding countries allow for Thailand to serve as a vital gateway for drug production and trafficking to the region and beyond.
Synthetic Drug Production and Trafficking in Thailand
That the quantities of synthetic and opiate drugs being produced, transported, and consumed throughout the region, and Thailand more specifically, have not reduced during a global pandemic (Channel News Asia, 2020), demonstrates the scale of the challenge faced by the Thai government and law enforcement. Whilst in other regions of the world, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has detected a reduction in transnational drug trafficking during the pandemic, no such reduction was detected in the Southeast Asian region (UNODC, 2020a). This suggests that the smuggling routes and methods have simply adapted to the reality posed by the pandemic. Smugglers have shifted their transit routes from the North to the Northeast, making increased use of the Mekong river (Chiang Rai Times, 2021), as a result of the travel restrictions and border closures that have occurred in the Golden Triangle since March 2020.
Traditionally a region known for opium cultivation and heroin production, the Golden Triangle has seen more active synthetic drug and methamphetamine production in recent years. One reason for such a growth is that synthetic drugs and methamphetamines can be made in laboratories, whereas opium production is dependent on harvest cycles and crop success. Furthermore, synthetic drug laboratories can be built to be enormously portable. These laboratories originated in China, where the synthetic drug business first took hold. However, largely due to Chinese government clampdowns, the labs have migrated to the Golden Triangle, leading to the exponential growth in methamphetamine and synthetic drug production in the region (UNODC, 2020c). Meanwhile, opium production is still a serious concern. After a decade of steady reduction, opium production has recently climbed back to 2003 levels in the Golden Triangle region (International Drug Policy Consortium, 2021).
Thailand remains both a consumer country of illicit drugs from the Golden Triangle, and a major transit route for drug trafficking to different regions via land, air, and sea (Office of the Narcotics Control Board, 2019). North Thailand remains the main entry point for drug traffickers, while smuggling through Northeast and West Thailand has risen in terms of frequency and volume in recent years.
A combination of factors including physical geography, widespread corruption, decreasing raw material prices, and the mobile nature of synthetic drug labs has meant the challenge posed to the Thai government is severe. Many sections of Thai society, from the military, to public administration and even Buddhist monks, have fallen victim to the corrupting forces exerted by the vast amounts of money present in the illicit drug trade and the wider context of organised crime it is situated within. The problem of corruption is deep rooted and widespread in a number of Southeast Asian countries, this environment allowing for drug-related organised crime to continue unimpinged (International Crisis Group, 2019). The high, and increasing, profit margins available, coupled with the low-income levels pervasive throughout the region, make criminal drug trafficking networks an attractive path for many. Given this complex and increasingly alarming situation, this paper presents a number of recommendations to the Thai government regarding how they can improve the efficiency of their drug trafficking prevention and reduction strategies.
Firstly, a fundamental shift in approach by the government is recommended, from viewing the issue in terms of a purely security risk that needs to be policed, towards a more social approach that considers the drug trafficking issue a societal one of equal importance. Many turn to drug taking, dealing or trafficking in response to the poor quality of life widespread across the region. Improving it, especially in the mountainous border regions and villages should be one of the government’s main focus. An important part of this shift in focus is for the government to rely much less on the destruction of crops destined for the illicit drug market, as this has negative societal, economic, health, and environmental impacts on the population (International Drug Policy Consortium, 2021).
Secondly, the financial power of the traffickers and their networks, largely fuelled via organised crime and money laundering, are difficult for the Thai government to match. The government should instead focus on improving their approach to and increasing their spending on combating money laundering for better tracking of the vast cash flows that fund much of the synthetic drug production in Thailand. Not only, as mentioned earlier, has the Chinese government clamped down on the synthetic drug production in China, but the government has also forced many large transnational organised crime syndicates to leave the country (UNODC, 2020c). As a result, a number of these groups relocated to the Golden Triangle, and have spent recent years refining their large-scale production processes, subsequently driving down the prices of synthetic drugs. Furthermore, the government should dedicate more resources to tracking the production and commerce of chemical compounds being used as the raw materials for synthetic drugs, especially given Thailand’s hub status in this area. This will require the government to cooperate more with other countries in the region as well as with ASEAN and the UNODC.
Thirdly and relatedly, the government must ensure that their knowledge of the clandestine manufacture and of the chemical profiles of the precursor chemicals used to produce the synthetic drugs is up-to-date and comprehensive. This is not an easy task, as the chemical compositions of drugs are constantly evolving. However, they can cooperate with their regional partners and the UN within the numerous pre-existing frameworks, such as the Mekong Memorandum of Understanding on Drug Control (UNODC, 1993) and the UNODC Global SMART Programme (Synthetics Monitoring: Analyses, Reporting and Trends) (UNODC, 2008). The Global SMART programme assists member states by supporting laboratories and law enforcement to generate and use information on the constantly evolving composition of the synthetic drugs being formulated, transported, sold, and consumed in order for them to be able to improve their forensic drug analysis capabilities and design subsequent policy and interventions effectively. The programme can also improve countries’ training on data collection and analysis of synthetic drugs. The current level of knowledge on the rapidly changing synthetic drug market amongst Thai law enforcement and scientists is not at the level required for them to be able to stay ahead (UNODC Southeast Asia and Pacific, 2020), and thus try to prevent, rather than simply react to, new drug developments. In addition, another resource they must make full use of is a recently published UNODC Toolkit on Synthetic Drugs (UNODC, 2019). Organised crime networks are using an ever-increasing range of chemicals in their production: in 2003 three illegal opioids were identified in the Golden Triangle region. By 2019, this number increased to 28 (UNODC, 2020b). There is a pressing need for the Thai government to remain on top of these developments.
Fourthly, the Thai government must cooperate with the Chinese government to a much greater degree. Whilst this has already been encouraged by the UNODC, the governments need to take further steps to ensure effective intelligence sharing on the chemical and pharmaceutical industries’ production chains within and between the two countries. This would also require the government to pivot funding and resource allocation away from carrying out large-scale and impressive looking, but ineffective, drug busts.
The current government discourse and approach has been almost warlike, with military and police commandos being on the move throughout the country, hunting both dealers and users, and placing a heavy reliance on large seizures of drugs. The government finds it important to highlight the success of such seizures, when the reality is that, regardless of how big they are, these busts make little impact on the vast trafficking continuing daily across the country’s borders. Indeed, the head of Thailand’s Narcotics Suppression Bureau has admitted that “We have intercepted a lot of drugs over the past year […] but the production capacity remains untouched” (Deutsche Welle, 2018).
Further, Thailand’s war on drugs has claimed its share of innocent lives. A 2003 campaign resulted in 2,500 deaths, due to the police having been given a quasi-license to kill. According to many human rights NGOs, people were killed after being incorrectly accused of drug trafficking (Deutsche Welle, 2019). There is a serious risk that such a discourse and approach could have similar negative effects once more. Indeed, people have already been killed by Thai law enforcement. Furthermore, those killed so far have been small village traffickers in the border regions rather than cartel leaders, showing that not only is this approach leading to loss of life, but it is also ineffective. An over-reliance on confiscation of drugs is an ineffective approach, the evidence in fact pointing towards increased law enforcement violence perpetuating greater drug-related violence and regional instability (International Drug Policy Consortium, 2021). Given the damage this approach has been found to inflict, as well as the number of ways it has been shown to be inadequate, the government must change their overall approach to combatting drug related crime. This proposed shift in strategy is vital given what both history and the current turn of events demonstrate the effects of an approach overly reliant on violence, and reactive rather than preventive, measures to be.
Fifthly, the government must also ensure it continues to collaborate bilaterally and through the UNODC to tackle transnational organized crime more generally. The UNODC in 2015 estimated that transnational organised crime groups globally generated annual earnings of around 1.5 percent of world GDP, of which around 36 percent was earned from drug trafficking (Deutsche Welle, 2015). Indeed, the network of drug production capabilities that has arisen in the region is directly funded by serious transnational organised crime groups (UNODC Southeast Asia and Pacific, 2020).
The evolving links between organised crime networks and terrorist networks further demonstrate the potential national security risks posed to Thailand and the Southeast Asian region by the burgeoning transnational drug trafficking industry. Specifically, these threats include the use of organised crime smuggling operations to transfer terrorists and their weapons worldwide, as well as co-operation between organised crime networks and terrorist groups for funding terrorism through illegal activities, such as drug trafficking. The Thai government must respond to this evolving threat by ramping up their campaign to fight transnational organised crime.
Finally, and most challengingly, Thailand must undertake a wider general effort, along with other countries in the region, to root out its deepest governance deficiencies. The government-funded National Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) reported that during 2019, 313 government officials were involved with narcotic drugs, and 166 government officials were arrested for their involvement (Office of the Narcotics Control Board, 2019). As long as corruption is allowed to continue, the vast organised crime networks that allow this industry to flourish will remain in place (International Crisis Group, 2019). Corruption is one of its primary facilitators. The priorities of this enhanced multilateral cooperation must be to secure borders and infrastructure as well as to reform and reinforce policing and judicial institutions. These are issues common to all Golden Triangle countries, further underlining the value that effective cooperation has the potential to bring. Government agencies are not only encouraged to collaborate better across countries but also within Thailand. There are many bodies working on this issue in Thailand, including ONCB, Customs, the Royal Thai Police Narcotics Suppression Bureau, Army Pamuang Force, and Navy Mekong Riverine Unit. It is imperative that all these bodies work together with the same set of priorities and goals.
Inaction by the government and other relevant stakeholders can produce serious consequences. According to the ONCB, 80 percent of those in drug rehabilitation centres are younger than 24 (Deutsche Welle, 2019). This demonstrates the disproportionate effect of drug trafficking on the younger sections of society, an especially worrying trend given that a high (and increasing) proportion of the population are young people. This section of the population is the country’s future economic and political resource. Thus, it is even more crucial that the drug problem is brought under control. If it is not, the future of the country appears much bleaker. If steps are not taken in the near future to improve the country’s approach to this issue, there is a real risk that the Golden Triangle region could become a global supplier for deadly synthetic opioids, a deeply concerning phenomenon given the profound governance issues currently facing the region. How this issue is tackled at the national and regional level has global implications and requires corresponding levels of cooperation to solve it.
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