UN warns of dark side of greater Asean integration

An injured member of a community-based anti-narcotics campaign group arriving at a hospital in Myit Kyi Na, in Myanmar's northern Kachin state, yesterday. The group claims that it was attacked by armed poppy farmers while trying to destroy opium fiel
An injured member of a community-based anti-narcotics campaign group arriving at a hospital in Myit Kyi Na, in Myanmar's northern Kachin state, yesterday. The group claims that it was attacked by armed poppy farmers while trying to destroy opium fields.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

More regional trade ties could also lead to more crime, as security controls lag behind

Increasing trade ties in South-east Asia are a boon not only for business but also for crime, though local officials have not quite figured out how to control the latter.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in a report released yesterday, warned of the significant danger posed by criminal activities such as drug trafficking, maritime piracy and human trafficking should local officials continue to neglect security needs thrown up by streamlined Customs controls.

"Regional integration is happening so fast it is changing the threats," UNODC's regional representative Jeremy Douglas told The Straits Times. But regional leaders, while focusing on economic needs, are not paying enough attention to the risks brought about by closer ties within the region, as well as between South-east Asia and the rest of the world.

"The security agenda is lagging far, far behind," he said. "It hasn't got the attention of policymakers the way it should have."

The illicit flows in South-east Asia are valued at about US$100 billion (S$140 billion) a year, but that's a conservative estimate.

Experts say the poorer countries in the region that throw open their doors to earn foreign exchange are often unprepared to police the surge of goods and people across the borders.

That money - generated from the trade in drugs, wildlife, people and fake products, for example - also destabilises the region by funding criminal networks. The loss in tax revenues reduces the benefits of trade liberalisation and hurts law-abiding businesses.

Within the Asean Economic Community, which came into being at the end of last year, "there has been increased pressure on border personnel to maintain a swift and lean clearing process", said the UNODC report.

"But not all clearing points are equipped to handle these pressures," the report said. "And if new rules are not accompanied by capacity-building and smarter checks, it will result in a dangerous situation of large undetected illicit flows."

Experts say the poorer countries in the region that throw open their doors to earn foreign exchange are often unprepared to police the surge of goods and people across the borders.

But the growth in traffic is unrelenting: The Pacific Asia Travel Association has predicted that visitor arrivals to the Asia-Pacific region will grow at an average rate of 6.2 per cent every year between 2014 and 2018, to hit 660 million.

Meanwhile, US$5.3 trillion worth of global trade passes through South-east Asian waters each year, making ships a ripe target for pirates. Less than 2 per cent of the 500 million containers shipped annually are inspected.

Against this backdrop, criminal networks are adapting their operations according to new connecting infrastructure.

"It appears that infrastructure projects joining eastern India to the rest of the (Greater Mekong Sub-region) has resulted in an increase in production of ketamine and methamphetamine," it said.

While the space for cross-border crime has expanded, "the systems and safeguards that accompany infrastructure projects are reflective of a time when crime was more of a local phenomenon".

The UNODC called for countries to share intelligence in real time using existing tools and technologies. It also urged them to strengthen regional data collection, as well as respond more efficiently to mutual requests for legal assistance.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2016, with the headline 'UN warns of dark side of greater Asean integration'. Print Edition | Subscribe