Southeast Asia’s Thriving Drug Trade

Southeast Asia’s Thriving Drug Trade

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

World Politics Review
25 October 2011.

From the early 1950s until 1990, when Afghanistan’s opium production surpassed that of Myanmar, most of the world’s illicit opium originated in mainland Southeast Asia. This is partly because the region’s rugged hills and mountains, heavy monsoon rains and lack of transport infrastructures have long protected rebel armies and illegal opium poppy cultivation from the writ of central governments and anti-drug agencies. Myanmar’s turbulent political history and internal wars since its independence in 1948 also contributed significantly to Asia’s long reign as the global leader in illicit opium production, as the opium economy and the war economy clearly nurtured one another.

After decades of expansion in Southeast Asia, illegal opium poppy cultivation eventually receded during the early 2000s, from an estimated total of 390,000 acres across the region in 1998 to just 60,000 acres in 2006. In that time, cultivation almost completely disappeared in Thailand (with an all-time low of 388 acres cultivated in 2006), and seriously decreased in Laos (an all-time low of 3,950 acres in 2007) and Burma (an all-time low of 53,100 acres in 2006). However, poppy cultivation in Southeast Asia subsequently rebounded between 2006 and 2010, increasing by 70 percent to an estimated 102,000 acres today. A number of factors explain the regional production rebound, including uncompensated opium suppression, rising opium prices, more favorable weather and resurgent conflicts in Myanmar. As a result, Myanmar remains the world’s second-largest illicit opium producer, with most of its poppy cultivation taking place in the Kachin and Shan states in the north and northeast of the country, along the borders with China, Laos and Thailand.

Clearly, counternarcotics efforts have failed to suppress or permanently reduce either illicit opium production or, as a consequence, heroin trafficking in Southeast Asia. The explanation lies in the fact that regional counternarcotics efforts have emphasized measures targeting drug supply and trafficking — measures that have proven ineffective if not counterproductive (Chouvy, 2010).

The Failure of Drug Supply Reduction

Opium bans in Myanmar were first enforced in the mid-1990s, oddly not by Myanmar’s central government but by the ethnic-based armies ruling over the most important areas of opium production in the country. The Kachin Independence Organization pledged to ban opium production after its 1994 cease-fire agreement with the junta. It was followed by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in 1995 and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in 1997. The Kokang region and the Wa region, both in Shan state, subsequently banned opium production in 2003 and 2006 respectively. These two last bans in particular helped decrease Myanmar’s overall opium production, since Shan state was producing up to 90 percent of Myanmar opium in the early 2000s. As a result, by the mid-2000s, opium production was clearly declining in northern Shan state and also in Kachin state.

The opium ban enforced by the MNDAA in Kokang and the UWSA in the Wa area, proved successful, but has meant the loss of the main and sometimes only cash crop of many impoverished farmers, without any compensation and therefore at high human costs. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime explained that in the Wa region, “opium reduction has resulted in a serious lack of cash, lack of food and increased debt for many households” who “are now unable to purchase not only rice, but also basic household necessities such as cooking oil, salt and clothing.”

In 2005, Laos also implemented it own opium ban, having only made opium production illegal in 1996. There again, and contrary to official planning, the opium ban was enforced before alternative livelihoods were made available to opium farmers. So while Laos’ village resettlement campaign had some positive impacts on education, health care and local economies, an insufficiently resourced poverty-reduction strategy (.pdf) left many resettled villages experiencing economic hardship, food insecurity and increased mortality rates. (The latter rose 70 percent during the first five years due to various epidemics.)

While opium production has not resumed in Myanmar’s Kokang and the Wa area, it has considerably increased farther south, in southern Shan state, including — and according to some accounts, mostly — in government-held areas. And in Laos, opium production eventually doubled following significant increases in opium prices and as farmers resumed poppy cultivation to cope with their uncompensated loss of income.

These are just the latest examples of the mostly ineffective and counterproductive impact of drug supply reduction efforts, a failure that is consistent with the record of 60 years of Asian opium bans. Even regarding the “successful” opium bans, the UNODC has questioned their sustainability, since alternative development strategies are either absent or largely insufficient to make up for the loss of income of some the poorest of Asian farmers. It is now obvious that when opium bans are issued and implemented before alternative livelihoods have been promoted, developed and made viable and sustainable, the very survival of millions of poor farmers is threatened.

Yet, since opium bans are rarely effective, even when imposed by authoritarian regimes, counternarcotics efforts often resort to eradicating illicit crops — that is, physically and forcefully destroying them before harvest. Eradication is of course more violence-prone and economically disruptive than opium bans, since farmers lose not only revenues, as with opium bans, but an entire crop and what they invested in it. Worse, since opium production is largely a coping mechanism and a livelihood strategy driven by poverty and food insecurity, whether war-related or not, eradication is most often counterproductive, as it threatens highly precarious livelihoods, increases poverty and raises opium prices. With eradication, as with opium bans, a socio-economic issue is addressed from a legal point of view: Opium production is targeted as a cause of further problems — criminality, corruption and addiction, among others — rather than as a consequence of prior problems, such as poverty and low availability of physical, financial and human assets. The causes of opium poppy cultivation are therefore ignored and even made more acute. Such a misunderstanding explains in large part why supply reduction has never been successful (Chouvy, 2010).

Alternative development programs that aim to reduce or suppress agricultural production of illicit drugs through economic incentives also have their limitations. Most of them have proved to be too rudimentary as development programs, focusing more on the economics of poppy cultivation than on its causes. Too often, the emphasis has been on finding which legal crops could replace opium poppies, rather than on addressing what drives opium cultivation by specific communities in specific areas. After almost 40 years of experimental programs and despite some recognized and lauded successes across the world, it is now obvious that alternative development, along with forced eradication, has failed to significantly decrease cultivation of illicit opium poppy in Asia — or of any other drug-producing crops around the world.

Yet alternative development cannot be dismissed altogether as a means of reducing the illicit production of plant-based drugs. In fact, it can be argued that it has failed as a strategy not because it was the wrong approach to drug supply reduction, but because it has constantly been considered in isolation from poverty reduction. While the links between poverty and agricultural drug production have been widely and convincingly demonstrated worldwide, drug supply reduction continues to focus on interdiction and repressive measures such as crop bans and forced eradication. Indeed, the vast majority of financial, material and human resources that have been invested during almost 40 years of a global war on illicit drugs have been used to design, implement and reinforce repressive measures. As a result, they increase poverty — the main cause of illicit agricultural drug production — rather than alleviate it.

Beyond inappropriate funding and bad project-design, alternative development has also suffered from the counterproductive effects of forced eradication or hasty opium bans that were imposed too early. For too long, eradication, bans and alternative development have tried to achieve supply reduction rather than demand reduction at the farm gate — that is, reduction of drug crops rather than reduction of the drug trade. The “War on Drugs” was and still is fought against consequences rather than against causes, targeting drug supply instead of poverty, admittedly a complex objective, especially in conflict-prone countries (Chouvy, 2010).

The Failure of Anti-Trafficking Measures

A direct consequence of the failure of drug supply reduction — and of ever-increasing consumption in countries of origin, transit and destination — are the national and international efforts aimed at curbing drug trafficking. In the end, countertrafficking policies and measures have failed as much as drug supply reduction, despite decades of renewed national and international efforts and increased financial budgets.

The United States initiated a policy aimed at reducing global production and consumption of certain drugs as early as 1906. A long historical process ultimately led to three United Nations conventions that were introduced to help legislate and control the illicit drug industry worldwide: the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances and the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. In 1998, a global strategy to reduce illicit drug supply was eventually adopted during the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem, calling for regional and subregional mechanisms, as well as stronger bilateral cooperation in order to achieve a “drug-free world” by 2008. Yet, in 2008, at least 8,641 tons of opium were illegally harvested, and 646 tons of opium and 91 tons of morphine and heroin were seized globally, demonstrating the failure of global prohibition efforts. That failure is of course particularly evident in Southeast Asia, where both opium and methamphetamine production increased again in the late 2000s.

In 1993, China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and the United Nations International Drug Control Program (the precursor to UNODC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding for Drug Control, to which Cambodia and Vietnam became parties in 1995. At the 33rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok in 2000, ministers “took note of the threat from drug abuse and drug trafficking on the security and stability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region, particularly its relations with transnational crime” and called for a drug-free ASEAN by 2015. As a result, a regional framework called ASEAN and China Cooperative Operations in Response to Dangerous Drugs, or ACCORD, was launched. The commitment to “Drug-Free ASEAN 2015” gave the region a clear objective, while the ACCORD Plan of Action outlined a roadmap toward achieving it, albeit without specifying expected outcomes and quantitative benchmarks.  

The fact that the United Nations had clearly failed to achieve a “drug-free world” by 2008 obviously did not deter Southeast Asian nations from setting their own unrealistic goal of obtaining a drug-free Southeast Asia seven years later. In fact, as the 2008 mid-term progress report produced by UNODC and ASEAN makes clear, the drug-free ASEAN goal was set without even defining what drug-free meant, therefore making any progress toward such a goal impossible to identify. Yet, while acknowledging this, the same report re-endorses the commitment to achieving Drug-Free ASEAN 2015, despite the fact that “the threat of a significant increase in the traffic of drugs . . . is significant.” The report blamed this high risk of increased drug trafficking on the important development of transport infrastructure in the Greater Mekong Subregion, but also on the implementation of trade agreements across ASEAN.

Regional response plans that include specific counternarcotics interventions in key areas have been devised. ACCORD created four such task forces to serve as the operational arms of its four-pillared Plan of Action: the promotion of civic awareness (“advocating on the dangers of drugs”); the reduction of consumption (“by building consensus and sharing best practices in demand reduction”); the strengthening of the rule of law (“improved law enforcement cooperation”); and the elimination or significant reduction of production (“by boosting alternative development projects”). The ACCORD task forces meet annually to foster operational coordination through the creation of annual work plans, which involve the various national-level drug control agencies and their other regional counterparts.

Cross-border cooperation, mutual legal assistance and supply reduction are of course major components of achieving the goal of a drug-free ASEAN, and UNODC has helped facilitate cross-border cooperation via the Border Liaison Offices (BLO) mechanism. As explained in the 2008 ASEAN-UNODC mid-term report, “BLOs bring together law enforcement units from both sides of a land or water border and put in place protocols for joint operations.” As of February 2009, 70 BLOs have been established along the borders of Myanmar (8), Cambodia (11), Laos (18), Thailand (18), Vietnam (8) and China (7). According to UNODC, Laos and Thailand undertook the first joint patrols on the Mekong River in 2003 in the context of the BLO program, and BLOs have been continuously expanded and strengthened, as they are now seen by some as the premier method to enhance regional cooperation against drug trafficking. However, it seems that BLOs are often far less efficient or useful than what can be expected from their stated goals. Visits conducted in 2010 and 2011 by the author to a few of the BLOs dotting the Cambodian border — along the Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese borders — revealed an extreme lack of material resources, barely existent cross-border cooperation and a lack or even an absence of staff.

Although seizures in the region have largely increased over the past few years, this has been due not to improved countertrafficking measures, but rather to increased production of both opium and methamphetamine. Indeed, in addition to being the main source of opium, Myanmar has also long been Southeast Asia’s main source of methamphetamine (Chouvy, Meissonnier, 2004). In its 2011 Global ATS Assessment report, the UNODC reported that “Southeast Asia has experienced significant increases in the seizures of methamphetamine pills originating from Myanmar,” mainly from Shan state: from 32 million pills in 2008 to 94 million pills in 2009 and 133 million pills in 2010. The report also noted that “over the past five years, ATS [amphetamine-type stimulants] manufacture has spread to new regions which previously reported little or no manufacture,” such as Indonesia, Malaysia and, to a lesser extent, Cambodia.

Rethinking Counternarcotics

While national governments, ASEAN and UNODC have all made efforts against drug trafficking, no significant success will be achieved in addressing illicit drug production in the region without first addressing poverty, which is the main driver of opium production, whether in Myanmar or in Laos. Another key issue that ASEAN countries and the UNODC must address is corruption, a topic that their above-mentioned common mid-term report conveniently avoids. Yet, Myanmar ranks among the world’s most-corrupt countries, as documented by Transparency International in its yearly reports over the past decade, with only Afghanistan and Somalia perceived as being more corrupt in 2009. Laos ranked 158th, tied with Cambodia, while Vietnam ranked 120th and Thailand 84th.

It is obvious that corruption hinders counternarcotics efforts at various levels, but especially at the trafficking stage, and the proceeds of the illegal drug economy clearly feed corruption, creating a vicious circle. The difficulty of coping with drug trafficking therefore results not only from poverty, which makes drug production and trafficking even more attractive economically, but also from corruption. Indeed, a lack of resources and fragile domestic institutions also undermine efforts targeting both drug production and drug trafficking.

While the goals of a drug-free world or a drug-free ASEAN will undoubtedly never be reached, efforts can and should be made to minimize the harm caused by illegal drug production, trafficking and consumption. Alongside demand-reduction, harm-reduction policies — that is, public health policies designed to reduce the harmful consequences associated with drug use and abuse — are a crucial tool against the spread of blood-borne diseases, notably along drug trafficking routes. On the supply end, economic development is needed in order to provide alternative livelihoods to opium poppy cultivators, as poverty — and more precisely food insecurity — is the main driver of opium production in mainland Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Nevertheless, economic development is not achievable without good governance, which requires peace, political stability, the rule of law and control of corruption. In the final analysis, illegal drug production will not abate in Myanmar and Southeast Asia until these conditions are met.


Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, Joël Meissonnier, 2004, Yaa Baa : Production, Traffic, and Consumption of Methamphetamine in Mainland Southeast Asia, Singapore, Singapore University Press. 

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, 2010, Opium. Uncovering the Politics of the Poppy, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Willem van Schendel, Itty Abraham, 2000, “Beyond Borders: (Il)licit Flows of Objects, People, and Ideas”, New York, Social Science Research Council, Discussion Paper.

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).