Q&A: The opium surge in Southeast Asia’s ‘Golden Triangle’

A revival of opium production in the Golden Triangle comes on top of a booming synthetic drug industry.

A Myanmar government soldier displays opium poppy during the destruction of an opium field near the notorious Golden Triangle in Myanmar in 2000 [File: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP]
A Myanmar government soldier displays opium poppies during the destruction of an opium field near the notorious Golden Triangle in Myanmar, 2000 [File: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP]

Bangkok, Thailand – The Golden Triangle – a region where the jungle borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet – has long been notorious as the centre of an illegal drug trade operated, controlled and protected by warlord-like military leaders allied with regional organised crime figures.

Synthetic drugs produced in the Golden Triangle have flooded regional markets. In 2021 alone, more than a billion methamphetamine pills were seized by authorities in Southeast and East Asia, according to the United Nations.

Organised crime syndicates and armed groups had joined forces in the Golden Triangle, with their expanded drug production exploiting the twin vulnerabilities of the recent pandemic and political instability in Myanmar, the UN said last year, leading to a drugs trade described as “staggering” in scale.

New data released last month by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) also showed that opium poppy cultivation has surged by 33 percent in the Golden Triangle and opium yields have the potential to burgeon by 88 percent.

Last year, 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) of opium poppies were cultivated in Myanmar, with an estimated potential opium yield of almost 800 metric tonnes.

Myanmar’s overall illicit opiate economy is now estimated to be worth $2bn while the regional market for heroin is valued at a staggering $10bn, according to the UN.

The resurgence of opium production in the highlands of the Golden Triangle will reverberate all the way down to the “wider drug economy centred around the lower Mekong region” and far beyond, the UN warned.

To understand the forces at play in the Golden Triangle drug trade, Al Jazeera spoke with Jeremy Douglas, UNODC’s regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Al Jazeera: At the recent launch of the UNODC report on opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar, a key theme was that the Golden Triangle is back. Can you please expand on that?

Douglas: The Golden Triangle has always been there but what we’ve seen over recent years is a really stark shift from opium and heroin towards methamphetamine and recently some ketamine.

That change was extremely profound and it started as we saw a migration of major organised crime into the Golden Triangle to produce synthetic drugs in late 2013.

The situation that has taken hold after February ’21 [when the military seized power in Myanmar] is that the dynamic in the Triangle has changed yet again. We’ve seen a further scale-up of synthetic drugs but we’ve also seen a severe economic contraction in the country and a return of the other side of the Golden Triangle – the traditional opium, [and] the heroin that follows – in a profound way.

So we’re seeing the Golden Triangle return to its roots to some extent, and at the same time, the synthetic drug economy remains outsized.

Al Jazeera: Why had opium production dropped off in the Golden Triangle?

Douglas: A variety of factors. There was the massive supply that was coming out of Afghanistan … which was feeding global markets. And then around 2014, 2015, we started seeing a massive surge of synthetic drugs following the migration of major crime groups’ operations into the Triangle and the supply starting to drive demand, drive the regional market, and a significant increase in synthetic drug use across the region.

At the same time, there was another phenomenon that took place in 2014 when Myanmar opened and foreign investment flooded in. The economy inside the country profoundly changed. A lot of people who would have had no other choice but to engage in opium farming … had other [opportunities]. There were other forms of income being generated in the country which they could benefit from.

And we were running some programmes which are really good to help farmers transition out of opium towards crops like high-value coffee and tea.

UNODC staff collect data on opium cultivation in Myanmar in 2022.
UNODC staff collect data on opium cultivation in Myanmar in 2022 [Courtesy of UNODC]

Al Jazeera: The UN notes the regional impact that the increase in opium production in the Golden Triangle will have. Can you speak to that?

Douglas: The increase in opium that has taken place over the past year will result in an increase in heroin supply. An increase which will feed into the regional market – a suddenly more diverse drug market. And this additional challenge has a profound health impact.

Heroin is an injectable drug which brings with it health and societal impacts. It will also generate further wealth for traffickers, which is going to … involve a range of other illicit activities like money laundering and precursor trafficking, that are already a challenge for the region to deal with.

So when we say regional impact, we mean there’s the immediate health issues that I’ve touched on and the fact is that the countries of this region are going to experience the brunt of this, like they are experiencing the brunt of the methamphetamine, the ketamine.

Al Jazeera: Are we going to see opium poppy cultivation continue to increase in the Golden Triangle?

Douglas:  Right now, we’re collecting and verifying in the field, but initial reports from the teams are that we’re looking at further increase. The question is the magnitude of it, we simply don’t know.

Al Jazeera: The situation with the drug trade in Myanmar appears to be inextricably linked to the political situation in Myanmar. That one has to be solved to resolve the other.

Douglas: You cannot separate economics from politics, security and stability in any country. And when you have a political crisis of this nature and a pre-existing illicit economy that was sizeable – and you have a contraction in the real economy to the extent that it has happened – of course, the illicit economy will step in and fill the void.

Fundamentally, there has to be a candid, honest discussion about the convergence of politics, economics, security and the drug trade in the country – illicit economies – and it is, in fact, a regionalised illicit economy. The borderlands of Thailand and Laos are profoundly impacted and they will be increasingly impacted in the years ahead.

But the impact cascades across East and Southeast Asia and addressing it will require political engagement by neighbouring countries, but also by the ASEAN group and China together with Myanmar.

Geremy Douglas, Regional Representative from UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) for Southeast Asia, delivers a speech at a ministerial meeting on anti-narcotics cooperation between Mekong sub-region countries in Hanoi on May 21, 2015. The 3-day conference gathers officials from Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for Southeast Asia . AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH Nam
Jeremy Douglas, Southeast Asia and the Pacific regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [File:  Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP]

Al Jazeera: You have said that corruption greases the wheels of the drug trade. How systematic and organised is the corruption around the drug trade in the Golden Triangle?

Douglas: Corruption is inbuilt in the drug trade. For the heroin to move from the labs of northern Shan [state] to Thailand, there would have to be pre-arranged payment agreed. Payments would also be made when it gets to the Thai border where the price per kg escalates. If authorities tasked with interdiction on the Thai border are not successful, drugs get through. But, at the same time, there’s always the potential for corruption at the border.

In essence, what I’m describing is the chain: from source right through to export and end market involves corruption.

Al Jazeera: You have also mentioned the role of money laundering. Profits are so massive in the drug trade that those profits have to go somewhere.

Douglas: Increasingly large drug profits have had to move somewhere and casinos have played a special role in recent years. As have other cash-based businesses that built up around them, some of the hotels, some of the entertainment businesses. They can take in cash which is then pushed through their books and which can end up in banks.

So, it is important for the casino industry to be carefully monitored and possibly worked with to help address the laundering. As well, banks that are banking on behalf of casinos in the Mekong [region] have to be aware that much or some of the money going through them is associated with the drug trade and it ends up in the regional banking system.

Al Jazeera: Could you speak to your description of opium farming as an employer of last resort?

Douglas: I would say our understanding from the farmers – and we’ve talked to them for years and years – is that they’re ready to give up opium. They turn to opium when they don’t have other options. And as they lose options or they don’t have other opportunities, they go back to it. So in a sense, when I say last resort, I mean it’s like an employer of last resort. It’s the old standby in a way … And especially now as they’re being incentivised and helped to go back into it by brokers that are representatives of heroin producers, and without other options, they go back to it.

Al Jazeera: Heroin producers encourage farmers to produce opium. Is there also a degree of intimidation there as well?

Douglas: So what we have been informed of by people from across the opium-producing areas is that representatives that buy opium have come into the territories, encouraged farmers to go back to it, provided seeds, fertilisers, and in some parts irrigation and sprinkler equipment.

They finance certain costs and then come back and buy their crop back from them and collect money for what they helped them get started with – the starting materials. It’s almost like a contract farming type arrangement like you see with other crops or agricultural products in the region. But I should say as well that they’re not pleasant to deal with, is what we are told by the farmers. They’re being advised to go into this. But, the techniques that are used can be “We want you to go back and do opium farming”, if you know what I mean.

And it’s a difficult proposition to say no to when you have someone come to you who is representing powerful interests. How does a poor farmer or village say no to those powerful interests?

Al Jazeera: What of the role of ethnic armed organisations in this? Do they rationalise what they do behind a philosophy of earning income from opium that allows them to buy weapons to fight for their freedom?

Douglas: I think there used to be that element of it and I think maybe that is still there. But I think we should not romanticise the involvement in drug trafficking and the partnerships with organised crime. Traffickers are business people. Heroin and methamphetamine traffickers are fundamentally ruthless business people.

They’re in the drug trade to make a lot of money. So while there is money from the business that finances groups and armed resistance, there are others including some major traffickers that disingenuously wear a uniform because it gives them a certain level of legitimacy. But at the end of the day, they’re traffickers, they’re organised crime figures.

An opium poppy field in flower in Myanmar's Shan State in December 2022 [Courtesy of UNODC]
An opium poppy field in flower in Myanmar’s Shan state, December 2022 [Courtesy of UNODC]

Al Jazeera: What is the relationship between the Myanmar government and some of the ethnic armed groups that are cultivating opium?

Douglas: There are groups that are under the umbrella of the security services of Myanmar and there are others which are not under that umbrella, which are independent and advocating for their autonomy. The ones under the umbrella have a formalised relationship, and they have their territory and they’re more or less left alone.

It’s hard to believe that they don’t know what’s going on in territory of the border guard or people’s militia forces, which we know, and the Thais know, and everyone seems to know, are involved. But then there’s the others, which are not under that umbrella, and many are producing and trafficking as well. And so it’s an extremely complex landscape of who’s producing and who’s not.

Al Jazeera: With a civil war in Myanmar, armed groups and drugs, how can you be hopeful in a situation like that?

Douglas: I think there are some, from time to time, signs of hope. Given what we’ve described, though, in terms of the synthetic drug economy and now opium and heroin, the related criminality, these are really difficult times for the country and the region. But again, that’s why we have to redouble efforts, quite frankly, and why we are saying to the region it’s time to have a political and strategic discussion about this.

The region cannot police its way out of this. It’s not going to work. So while it isn’t an optimistic situation, it’s a situation that has to be dealt with and we’ve got to get to that point, of candidly getting leadership to say it’s time now to do something different here.

A police officer from the Narcotics Control Board guards bags of methamphetamine pills during a Destruction of Confiscated Narcotics ceremony in Ayutthaya province, north of Bangkok, Thailand, June 26, 2015. About 7,340 kg (16,182 lbs) of drugs, among them methamphetamine, marijuana, heroin and opium worth more than 22 billion baht ($651,000,000), were destroyed during the anti-drug campaign, according to the Public Health Ministry. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
A police officer from the Office of the Narcotics Control Board guards bags of methamphetamine pills during a destruction ceremony in Ayutthaya province, north of Bangkok, Thailand, 2015 [File: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

Al Jazeera: Drug interdiction and policing alone are not a solution?

Douglas: The drug policy of this region is heavily tilted in a certain direction, which clearly hasn’t really worked well.

It’s been decades of trying to seize more drugs, and it’s more drugs every year. Let’s be honest, it’s not working. And we’ve been saying it for years. Address demand. Prevent the growth in demand, and address the health and societal impacts. But also adjust law enforcement strategy. You cannot seize your way out of this, particularly with synthetic drugs, which are infinite.

You have to radically change your approach. You have to dismantle the business model of organised crime. Disrupt their banking, disrupt their chemical trade, disrupt the facilitators of their business, their lawyers, their money launderers. They have to be dealt with.

The problem is the region continues to chase the drug supply and make seizures and measure their success by seizures. Clearly, that’s not working.

We hope that regional leaders will start prioritising this beyond policing because right now it’s still a police discussion. So we have to get beyond that and it has to be changed at a policy level.

Source: Al Jazeera