New drug trafficking routes in Southeast Asia

New drug trafficking routes in Southeast Asia

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Jane’s Intelligence Review
July 2, 2002
Vol. 14 N° 7, July 2002, pp. 32-34

The last decade has seen two main trends in opiate production and trafficking in Southeast Asia: concentration of opium poppy cultivation in Myanmar and diversification of the drug trafficking routes from Thailand to China and northeast India. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy reports.

Thailand was the main trafficking route for heroin in Southeast Asia until the early 1990s. However, a number of factors have contributed to the reorientation of drug trafficking routes within Southeast Asia and to the development of new routes to other parts of the continent.

The Thai crackdown on heroin trafficking after its 1984 eradication campaign considerably reduced the use of its well-developed road system by smugglers from Myanmar. Subsequent patrols of northern Thailand and its Western border by the Third Army and the Border Patrol Police then also disrupted the routes used across the Thai-Myanmar border by opium caravans.

However, in recent years, the old paths of the former Communist Party of Thailand through the mountain range stretching from Chiang Mai to Lampang, as well as outposts of Thai bases of the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) (Haw Division 93 for example, in Mae Hong Son province), have been widely used by traffickers mainly carrying methamphetamine. Since 1999, Thai authorities have reacted to these new trends by turning their Internal Security Operations Command from an anti-communist task force to an anti-drugs unit. In 2000, they also set up a Territorial Defence Training Scheme that turned about 600 border villages into anti-drug trafficking outposts (see JIR, April 2002, pp. 33-35).

The commercial opening of both southern China and northeast India since the mid-1980s has also created new routes. Heroin trafficking has followed the Burma Road since at least 1985, passing through the Myanmar-China border posts of Muse and Ruili and continuing on through Baoshan, an old Yunnanese knot of nineteenth century opium trafficking, then through Dali and Kunming. Spanning 1,200km, the Chinese border has been increasingly traversed since the Myanmar junta legalised crossborder trading in 1988, especially after the 1989 fall of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and the subsequent appearance of the United Wa State Army. A decade later, in May 1998, Chinese authorities estimated that at least 100kg of heroin transited daily through Bose, in Guangxi province.

Other drug trafficking routes include those passing through the Kambaiti Pass or, further south, through Loije. From Yunnan, Myanmar heroin can then reach Eastern China and Hong Kong, to be eventually exported overseas to Australia and North America. However, some heroin is also bound for the Southeast Asian market, entering Laos through its Luang Namtha and Phongsaly provinces.

China is prone to drug trafficking from Myanmar since its southern neighbour has an important Chinese population that consists of, among others, Panthay caravan traders, former KMT as well as CPB members, and local Kokang Chinese, all of whom are more or less involved in illicit crossborder activities and drug trafficking. The powerful attraction of both Hong Kong and Taiwan as major international heroin trafficking nodes also adds to the appeal of the Chinese route.

While China is certainly the main transhipment destination for heroin from Myanmar, it is not the only one, as northeast India also draws some of the traffic. From poppy fields in northeast Myanmar, opium as well as heroin are transported by road, through Bhamo, Lashio and Mandalay to northeast India, which shares a 1,463km border with Myanmar. Heroin trafficking across the India-Myanmar border was first noticed in the early 1990s and six heroin laboratories were discovered in western Myanmar in 1992. There are two main drug trafficking routes leading from western Myanmar to the Indian states of Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. The foremost route begins in Mandalay, continuing through Monywa and Kalewa, where it splits: northward, to the Tamu-Moreh border crossing and the Indian Road 39, in Manipur; and southward, to Hri-Champhai, into Mizoram. Further north, Homalin is reached all the way from Bhamo and serves as a springboard into Nagaland, from where the heroin goes to Assam and, through Dispur, joins other shipments bound for Calcutta and the rest of the Indian subcontinent.

However, from Mandalay, Myanmar heroin also goes to Yangon, either by road or by way of the Irrawaddy River. The recent upsurge in drugs trafficking across the India-Myanmar border occurs in the context of a thriving contraband economy around Tamu-Moreh and Hri-Champhai that has existed since 1965, even though crossborder trading was finally legalised in 1995. Political and social instabilities, armed violence linked with autonomous rebellions as well as state repression, and endemic underdevelopment and poverty make a long and poorly manned border prone to drug trafficking as well as the smuggling of precious stones, hard woods (teak), gold and various consumer goods.

New routes for a new drug

In the late 1990s, the diversification of drug trafficking routes increased together with the diversification of illicit drug production. The explosion of methamphetamine production in Myanmar has led to a resurgence in the use of the Thai route, since Thailand is by far the first consumer market of yaa baa (mad pills). Yaa baa traffickers differ from others in that they are more numerous and carry small quantities of pills across the Thai-Myanmar border. They form what Thai authorities have referred to as an “ant army”, crisscrossing the border along countless hill paths and using small tribal villages as staging posts. The strong crackdown led by the Thai army and the police in the northernmost part of the country has recently diverted the flows of methamphetamine, pushing traffickers to use new itineraries. Yaa baa, but also heroin, now enters Thailand from Laos through border towns such as Chiang Khong, Nan, Loei, Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahaern and Ubon Ratchathani. Laotian roads are frequently used for transporting illicit drugs bound for Thailand, even though drug trafficking aboard speedboats along the Mekong river, which demarcates the international border between the two countries, is the first choice. Many villages, such as Ban Ahi, in Laos – 50km north of Loei – from where methamphetamine, locally grown cannabis and weapons enter Thailand, straddle the border.

Further south along the Thai border and lower on the Mekong, Cambodia is also increasingly used as a staging point for trafficking methamphetamine via Trat and Chanthaburi into Thailand. East of Laos and Cambodia, Vietnam has similarly been turned into a drug trafficking route, either from or to China. Overseas trafficking is frequently organised from Vietnamese seaports such as Hoi Anh, Danang, Vinh and Haiphong or from the Cambodian Koh Kong province or Pochentong airport (Phnom Penh). Vietnam is also a destination for Myanmar heroin, the Hekou-Lao Cai border crossing being one of the most frequently used. Even though drug trafficking routes in Southeast Asia are increasing, traffickers keep diversifying their itineraries, some of them sometimes taking national authorities by surprise.

After the Second World War, Thailand was first avoided by drug traffickers coming from Myanmar because its police and army, as well as its leaders, were notoriously corrupt and cost them too much in bribes. Laos was thus originally used to bypass such added taxes. Now, however, it is the tough anti-drug policy of Thai authorities that is driving traffickers towards alternative routes such as Laos and Cambodia. In 1999, for example, Thai authorities increased the number of border checkpoints along its Laotian and Cambodian borders from 100 to 269, again encouraging the traffickers to resort to other routes.

In recent years, routes through southern Thailand have been on the agenda of both traffickers and anti-drug forces, particularly since March 2000, when several million methamphetamine pills were seized in Prachuap Khiri Khan, having been trafficked from Kawthaung, or Victoria Point, in Myanmar, to Ranong, Thailand. In January 2001, another seizure confirmed this reorientation of drug trafficking through southern Myanmar and Thailand. Close to eight million pills and 116kg of heroin were seized aboard Thai fishing boats west of the Ko Surin islands, pointing to the Andaman Sea as a major drug route. Eighty per cent of the drugs entering Thailand come across the northern part of the Thai-Myanmar border, but the strengthening of Thai anti-drug actions has clearly fostered a wide diversification of drug trafficking routes as well as a diminution of the quantity of drugs being transported at any one time.

Drug trafficking and HIV

The existence of the drug-producing area of the Golden Triangle has contributed to the considerable increase in the consumption of opiates among Southeast Asian populations and even farther afield, along all Asian drug-trafficking routes. In Asian countries, a correlation exists, in both time and space, between the spread of opiates trafficking, the increase of their consumption, and the explosion, only slightly later, of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The HIV/AIDS outbreak in Asia occurred between 1988 and 1990 and coincided with the multiplication of the Asian drug trafficking routes – from Southeast Asia as well as from Southwest Asia – and their re-orientation towards the north, as well as with the spread of heroin addiction throughout the Asian continent. From Myanmar, the province of Yunnan has not only become the main drug trafficking route but was also home to 80% of all China’s HIV-positive individuals in 1990. The area is now awash with Myanmar heroin, and two-thirds of the injecting drug users of the Chinese border town of Ruili are HIV positive, as is also the case in Guangxi, the next stop on the traffickers’ route.

The correspondence in Yunnan between the development of the heroin traffic, the emergence of intravenous injection – nowadays the main mode of heroin consumption – and the near-simultaneous waves of heroin addiction and HIV/AIDS infection, can now be seen all over Asia. A similar process occurred in northeast India where heroin trafficking from Myanmar quickly increased. As has happened in China, 80% of the heroin addicts of Manipur, the main drug trafficking gate, are currently infected with HIV. Manipur is now the Indian state with the largest epidemic of HIV/AIDS, and one can observe that the disease began to spread at a particularly fast rate after the bilateral Indo-Myanmar border agreement came into effect. Apart from law and order issues, the upsurge of heroin addiction and the raging HIV pandemic that have accompanied the development of the drug trafficking routes in southern China and northeast India now constitute one of the main challenges facing Asia.

Main production and consumption centres

Illicit drugs produced in Southeast Asia consist of opiates, amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), and cannabis. Opiates and ATS come almost exclusively from mountainous areas of mainland Southeast Asia. Production areas range from eastern Myanmar to northern Laos, although one can also find ATS laboratories in Cambodia, along the Thai border. Cannabis, on the other hand, grows widely in Cambodia, the main Southeast Asian producer. These three productions are destined for different markets. Raw or refined opium is distributed by local networks for local and ‘traditional’ consumption, while opium transformed into heroin is aimed at regional as well as world markets: these include all the countries of Southeast Asia, China, India, Australia and also North America.

Only a small amount of Southeast Asian ‘China White’ reaches Western Europe, which is more prone to consuming Afghan heroin. When not exported to China, methamphetamine – the ATS that is extensively produced in Myanmar, but also in Laos and Cambodia – is consumed within Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand. Thai and especially Cambodian cannabis is exported in large quantities to Western markets.

About the author

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Dr. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy holds a Ph.D. in Geography from the Sorbonne University (Paris) and an HDR (Habilitation à diriger des recherches or "accreditation to supervise research"). He is a CNRS Research Fellow attached to the PRODIG research team (UMR 8586).

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy est docteur en géographie, habilité à diriger des recherches (HDR), et chargé de recherche au CNRS. Il est membre de l'équipe PRODIG (UMR 8586).