Southeast Asia's Goal of a Drug-Free Region by 2015 a Fantasy

opium golden triangle

Opium cultivation is rising in Asia's 'Golden Triangle'

Almost 16 years ago, governments in Southeast Asia agreed to try and rid the region of illicit narcotics, yet with the self-imposed deadline fast approaching, the chances of this are non-existent with both production and trafficking on the rise.

In April 2012, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in collaboration with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) center for East Asia and the Pacific, reaffirmed the Joint Declaration for a Drug-Free ASEAN by 2015, an ambitious plan which focuses on increasing interdiction and eradication operations, along with use prevention, in an effort to remove illicit drugs from the region.

To say that the plan is ambitious would perhaps be an understatement, particularly when considering the success of prohibitionist policies to date. Indeed, with the self-imposed deadline rapidly approaching, drug production and distribution in Southeast Asia is in fact on the rise, according to two recent reports, in spite of increasing efforts by authorities in the region.

As the Transnational Institute demonstrated in their report, “Bouncing Back: Relapse in the Golden Triangle,” when looking at recent UNODC figures, we can see that the cultivation of opium in Burma, Laos and Thailand has almost tripled since 2006, countering claims by governments that aggressive counter-narcotics policy are seeing successes. In 2013, over 60,000 hectares of land were used to grow opium poppies in the Golden Triangle, producing just under 900 tonnes of opium. This is an alarming jump from the estimated 24,000 hectares under cultivation in 2006.

The majority of Golden Triangle cultivation is concentrated in Burma’s Shan State, an area which now accounts for roughly 25 percent of the global cultivation, second only to Afghanistan.

As if rising opium production and cultivation were not enough, the May report from the UNODC – “Global Synthetic Drugs Assessment,” -- revealed that the trafficking of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants (ATS) in East and Southeast Asia, Oceania, and the Pacific is reaching new highs. The Asia-Pacific region now hosts the world’s largest market for synthetic drugs, according to the report, with a little over 36 tonnes of methamphetamine detected in 2012, as opposed to just under 11 tonnes in 2008.  Methamphetamine accounts for some 90 percent of the total amounts seized.

Throughout the past two decades, the UNODC have monitored the evolution of drug trafficking in Southeast Asia in order to assess the feasibility of achieving a drug-free ASEAN by 2015. One major challenge, officials say, is the regional integration of economies, trade and transportation, which favors the spread of illicit drugs. For this reason, they recommended that all countries, not just those who have the capacity and resources, strive to accomplish this goal by enhancing cooperation and law enforcement.

Even this would be futile, however, as the decision to increase repressive drug control policies in order to meet the deadline has done more harm than good, according to Martin Jelsma from the Transnational Institute. The prioritization of immediate eradication strategies over a long-term development plan, Jelsma argues, has so far only contributed to the displacement of drug-related problems from one area or substance to another. Law enforcement crackdowns are, for example, believed to be responsible for the shifts in opium cultivation from Laos and northern Burma to Shan State and India, as well as in substance use, which would explain the increasing popularity of methamphetamine and New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) in the region. 

Despite the joint efforts, national and international authorities have failed to understand the dynamics of drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle, triggering the rise of new producing areas, trafficking routes and even substances. As the Asian illicit narcotics market continues to adapt and evolve, the idea of eradicating illicit drugs from the region by 2015 appears rather unrealistic.