Not Even COVID Could Stop Southeast Asia’s Booming Drug Trade, Report Says

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says the trade is only going to keep expanding.
June 10, 2021, 11:06am
Thailand meth
Thai authorities display seized methamphetamine pills, known locally as “ya ba,” in June 2020. Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP

Like much of the world over the past year, COVID-19 forced the closure of borders and pummeled economies in Southeast Asia. But while many suffered and switched jobs, drug traffickers went about their business and even thrived, according to a new report.

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In findings released Thursday, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said regional cartels were not only resilient to the challenges of the pandemic, but have become creative in their abilities to evade detection from authorities and have managed to expand their operations.

Regardless of COVID-19-related restrictions on transport, authorities across the region confirmed 169 tons in seizures in 2020, an almost 20 percent increase from the 142 tons seized the year before, according to the report.

“Surprisingly, organized crime groups have been able to push more into the market successfully even with COVID-19,” Inshik Shim, UNODC Regional Coordinator for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said on a panel of speakers during the report’s launch in Bangkok. “When it comes to the process, clearly COVID has had very limited impact on the supply of meth in the region. In fact, Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia have recorded record low prices of meth in 2020.” 

“Surprisingly, organized crime groups have been able to push more into the market successfully even with COVID-19.”

He added that the drop in price is partly due to cheaper manufacturing costs as the region has a huge chemical trade that is often exploited by organized crime. Shim said that the rise in production is primarily driven by supply, and that it has resulted in “increased harm for users of synthetic drugs.”

The drug trade has long blossomed across Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, an area known as the Golden Triangle where sophisticated networks push out billions of dollars worth of product with shipments destined for foreign shores in East Asian countries and Australia.

Smugglers have used all manner of techniques to evade authorities, including hiding drugs in tea bags and stereo speakers. Late last month, a man with a press card and news van was caught attempting to smuggle 180 kilos of weed in Thailand at the Laos border. They are also becoming better at communication on social media, according to Paisith Sungkahapong, a representative of Thailand’s Office of the Narcotics Control Board.

“The drug dealers have exploited new techniques online, using various social media platforms to conduct their activities,” he said at the report’s launch, without going into detail.

In addition, they are using new routes along the Laos border, while at the same time taking advantage of political instability in Myanmar, which was spiraled into chaos since a military coup in February. They're also capitalizing on the reallocation of resources to handle COVID-19 in the region.

Much of the synthetic drugs, particularly meth, are being sourced from Shan State in Myanmar. But UNODC researchers suggested that Cambodia is emerging as a new large-scale illicit manufacturing point.

“I think it’s really important to understand that these organized groups are always looking for new areas to expand their elicit business,” Shim said.

Not only is the methamphetamine trade unaffected by the pandemic, seizures of ecstasy in Southeast Asia have increased. In 2020, over 8.9 million ecstasy tablets were seized throughout the region, according to the UNODC, which expressed concern over the overdose potential of pills that have recently doubled in size and potency.

All the activity has apparently led to a rise in users too, UNODC researchers said. VICE World News reported on a recent spike in overdoses in Thailand in January of this year that resulted in the deaths of 13 drug users.

“It’s really important that all countries in the region have the capacity to rapidly detect harmful drugs and communicate this through the right channels so that users will not be found in tragic situations like what we observed in January,” Shim said.