The amount of methamphetamines, both in tablet and crystal form, has ballooned in Southeast Asia in recent years. Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP
More than 55 million amphetamine tablets—known locally as “yaba,” or “crazy pills”—and over 1.5 tons of crystal methamphetamine, hidden inside beer crates and loaded into the back of a truck. This is what Asia’s single biggest illegal drug bust looked like, after authorities in Laos intercepted a smuggler’s vehicle in the country’s northwestern Bokeo Province on Wednesday night.Jeremy Douglas, Southeast Asia regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told Reuters that the discovery on Oct. 27 by Lao authorities was “by far the largest seizure in the history of East and Southeast Asia.”
The record haul continues a trend of increasingly frequent large-scale drug seizures that have taken place in the Mekong region over recent weeks and months. Bokeo, which hugs the borders of both Thailand and Myanmar, sits at the heart of the infamous Golden Triangle: a mountainous area that has historically been known as a major opium-producing region and, more recently, become one of the largest methamphetamine-producing regions in the world. Feeding that trend, according to experts, is the increasingly volatile political situation in neighboring Myanmar—particularly Shan State, a hotbed for the industrial-scale manufacture of synthetic drugs like meth. This meth is typically disseminated throughout Southeast Asia and further onwards to lucrative markets like Japan, Australia and New Zealand.With COVID-19 hardening international borders with China, and a military coup destabilizing Myanmar’s security and governance situation, Laos has become a popular gateway for drug traffickers seeking to get their product out to the world. “The 55.6 million methamphetamine tablets and 1.5 tons of crystal seized this week in Bokeo, Laos, and the additional seizures of 6 and 10 million tablets nearby in the days before, are no doubt connected to the deterioration of security and governance in [Myanmar’s] Shan State,” Douglas told VICE World News. “Shan has been the center of meth tablet production in the Mekong for a long time, but it has more recently become the epicenter of crystal meth production for Southeast Asia. Production of both has scaled-up over recent years and noticeably jumped again in recent months.”
The quantity of methamphetamines being seized in Laos has seen a sharp uptick over the past five years. Throughout 2016, local authorities seized a total of 2,849,414 meth tablets and 150 kilograms of crystal meth. In 2020, they seized more than six times that amount of meth tablets—18,602,900—and more than 37 times that amount of crystal meth—5,564.4 kilograms. But these figures pale in comparison to the situation within Myanmar’s borders. In 2020, authorities there seized 328,410,692 meth tablets, 2,145.2 kilograms of meth powder—usually processed into tablets—and 17,363.9 kilograms of crystal meth.For the most part, the number of drug seizures in the Golden Triangle, which analysts and enforcement officials use as a rough proxy to estimate production, have grown year-on-year. And the global pandemic, it seems, has had little impact on the region’s booming market for increasingly cheap and potent synthetic substances. The authors of the UNODC’s 2021 report on Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia noted that while the pandemic has restricted most people’s mobility and plunged the global economy into its deepest recession in almost a century, “recent developments observed in the illicit synthetic drug market in East and Southeast Asia have demonstrated its resilience.”“Lao PDR remains a major transit point for methamphetamine trafficking from Shan State, Myanmar,” they added. “Despite mobility restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, annual seizure amounts in 2020 exceeded those of 2019.” Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.