The sky over some of Myanmar’s biggest cities turned black on Sunday with the smoke of more than $643 million worth of incinerated drugs and precursor chemicals.
The narcotics, which included bulk quantities of heroin, cannabis, methamphetamine, ecstasy, and ketamine, were stacked in gigantic piles and ceremonially destroyed as part of the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. In other major cities throughout the region and world at large, local drug authorities were putting the torch to their own stashes of illicit substances seized over the previous 12 months.
The International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, a United Nations International Day that seeks to raise awareness around the illegal drug trade, has been observed annually, every June 26, since 1989.
For years, narco police have highlighted the occasion by pouring out, setting fire to, or driving steamrollers over huge stockpiles of seized illicit substances to send a message to traffickers and signal that the authorities are winning the war on drugs. It is a yearly ritual that, however visceral, rarely translates into anything more than a dramatic PR exercise.
But this year was significant for East and Southeast Asian authorities, in light of the way in which drug trends in the region have shifted over the past year. Production and trafficking of illegal synthetic substances hit record levels in 2021, with authorities collectively seizing nearly 172 tons of methamphetamine and more than 1 billion meth tablets, or “yaba.”
The amount of seized yaba pills is seven times higher than it was 10 years ago, while the 79 tons of crystal meth seized in the region in 2021 was approximately eight times that which was seized a decade ago, according to a recent report from the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Meanwhile, the price of meth in both tablet and crystal form has continued to drop throughout the region, indicating that supply remains high and even historic seizures are doing little to stymie the flow.
While authorities may be celebrating the unprecedented volume of drugs that they managed to confiscate over the past 12 months, and as armed narco police posed for photo opps next to flaming mountains of drugs on Sunday, experts have flagged concerns that it's all just a drop in the bucket.
“It is very likely the drug market is significantly underestimated in East and Southeast Asia, and this is a huge problem given the region is home to somewhere in the range of 2.3 billion people,” Jeremy Douglas, Southeast Asia regional representative for UNODC, told VICE World News just days after Lao authorities celebrated the biggest single drug bust in Asia’s history.
“Governments in Asia often downplay or do not try to measure use given it is uncomfortable to discuss, and if levels are even half what they are in the West, it forces a rethink of global estimates and strategies.”
“The supply surge we have been witnessing is going somewhere,” Douglas added. “It is being taken up and used in the region.”
Follow Gavin Butler on Twitter.