WASHINGTON - The Golden Triangle's methamphetamine problem is spreading beyond the Mekong region, with high volumes of the drug being seized in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Figures revealed on Monday (May 21) show that several Mekong countries have already surpassed 2017 seizure totals only a few months into 2018.
These figures were released by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) at the start of a two-day anti-drug conference in Myanmar's capital, Naypyitaw.
From 2008 to 2017, meth tablet seizures in the region increased nine times from 50 million to more than 450 million.
Between 2014 and 2016, meth prices across the region in Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand fell, reaching a low of US$2 per tablet in Thailand and US$ 2.20 in Myanmar.
UNODC regional representative based in Bangkok, Mr Jeremy Douglas, told The Straits Times: "Regional market demand and potential have been significantly underestimated."
He warned: "It has not been dealt with, and it is growing, and transnational organised crime (groups) are simply taking advantage of a strategic failure and are growing their business."
Methamphetamine and heroin are currently estimated to be worth US$40 billion (S$54 billion) in the regional drug market, according to UNODC adviser Tao Zhiqiang.
That is several times more than the Golden Triangle opium trade was worth at its peak, before crackdowns, crop substitutions and changing drug trends saw it morphing into synthetics.
Meth is far more profitable than opium; it employs fewer people and thus concentrates more profits in the hands of the organised crime groups that control the business.
The UNODC's analysis also underlines the strong correlation between meth supplies and conflict zones, mainly in northern Myanmar.
"Conflict areas offer a safe haven for organised crime to operate and traffic drugs," Mr Douglas said. "The groups that control territory where the drug labs are running are clearly profiting."
In a snapshot of what law enforcers are faced with, late last Friday, in the sparsely populated tropical hills of northern Thailand, a military task force tried to stop a brand new Toyota Hilux Revo pickup truck with no licence plates - but the driver sped away.
The troops chased the truck. Its driver lost control, ran it into a ditch, and jumped out and fled. Searching the truck, the troops found 2.4 billion baht (S$100 million) worth of meth - 7.8 million pills and 50kg of crystal meth - packed into 39 fertiliser sacks.
"We have seen evidence that major regional organised crime (groups) have migrated operations into the special regions (of Myanmar) and nearby conflict areas of northern Shan State, and they are producing meth there on an unprecedented scale," Mr Douglas said.
Several ethnicity-based militia control territories in Northern Myanmar.
Many are the subject of peace talks with Myanmar's government - which have not progressed significantly, partly because of deep and complex issues, including the vast sums of money involved in illicit trade of commodities, and the large and well-equipped armed forces of some of the groups.
One of them is the United Wa State Army (UWSA). In January, the US Treasury Department designated Mr Zhao Wei, a Chinese national who controls the Kings Romans Casino in Laos, and others in his organisation for an asset freeze over his connections with the UWSA.
The Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control said: "Operating largely through the Kings Roman Casino, the Zhao Wei (Transnational Criminal Organisation) facilitates the storage and distribution of heroin, methamphetamine, and other narcotics for illicit networks, including the United Wa State Army, operating in neighbouring Burma (Myanmar)."
It added: "Since 2014, Thai, Lao, and Chinese authorities have seized large narcotics shipments that have been traced to the Kings Romans Casino."
Said Ms Sigal Mandelker, US Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, in a statement on Jan 30: "The Zhao Wei crime network engages in an array of horrendous illicit activities, including human trafficking and child prostitution, drug trafficking, and wildlife trafficking."
This is "part of a broader strategy to disrupt the financial infrastructure of transnational criminal organisations that pose a threat to the United States and our allies", she added.
Others targeted for the freezing of assets and prohibitions were Mr Zhao's wife Guiqin Su, a Chinese national and a director of Kings Romans Co; Australian national Abbas Eberahim, in charge of security at the casino; and Thai national Nat Rungtawankhiri, also a director of Kings Romans Co.
Days later, in a statement, Mr Zhao, who some reports say is based in Macau, denied the accusations, calling them "unilateral, extraterritorial, unreasonable and hegemonic act of ulterior motives and malicious rumour-mongering".
"This action has severely misled international public opinion and created unnecessary worries among some investors and tourists," he complained.
Laos is particularly vulnerable to organised crime, Dr John Coyne, an expert on border security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, told The Straits Times.
And "ungoverned spaces" were increasing in Myanmar, he said. Northern Myanmar is a production hub and Laos a transshipment hub, he said.
More frequent seizures of meth by law enforcement across the region, on an almost weekly basis, had not created any shortage - which would in theory drive prices up, increasing the cost for users.
Instead, prices were down - which meant much more meth was being manufactured, Dr Coyne said.
Also, the opening up of more trading routes facilitated by arrangements under the Asean Economic Community and China's One Belt, One Road initiative was facilitating the spread of meth.
"If you're a bad guy, you can operate across borders fairly seamlessly," Dr Coyne said.
However, the authorities in the Mekong countries inundated with cheap meth face limited options in dealing with remote production areas outside the reach of state authorities - mostly in northern Myanmar.
Hope centres on choking off supplies of the chemicals used to make these drugs, known as precursors, through enforcement and sharing of intelligence among agencies and across borders.
Myanmar's Deputy Home Minister, Major-General Aung Soe, was quoted in the UNODC's press statement saying that a top priority for his government was a "regional precursor strategy that will slow the supply of chemicals and pharmaceutical products into drug producing areas of the Golden Triangle".
Said Mr Douglas: "The drugs may be produced and come from northern Myanmar but market demand is regional, and precursors to make the drugs come from India and China."
However, governments continue to struggle to address market demand, they are reluctant to systematically share information and they are very slow moving, Mr Douglas said.
The UNODC hoped to broker solutions, he added.
"At the same time, the connection to conflict, the peace process and militia finance cannot be denied, and we need the problem to be discussed candidly in peace negotiations," Mr Douglas said.