As is well known, Southeast Asia is one of the world’s centers of drug production. We are talking about the infamous “Golden Triangle”, located in the remote mountainous areas of the Indochina Peninsula, at the point where Laos, Thailand and Burma (which since 1989 has been known as Myanmar) intersect.
At the end of British colonial rule in the mid-twentieth century, a long civil war broke out in Burma, when the new Burmese government was confronted by a multitude of groups united on ethnic and ideological grounds. The area of the “Golden Triangle” was inhabited by the Shan people who wanted to secede from Burma and entered into an armed struggle with the Burmese army. In addition to the Shan, there were other, less numerous ethnic groups, who were later joined by Kuomintang troops defeated in China. After they united, they consolidated their positions.
For a long time now the Shan have grown opium poppy, which is used in folk medicine. With the spread of illicit drug trafficking around the world, the cultivation of this plant has turned into a profitable business. Having repeatedly increased the acreage of opium poppy, the Shan, along with fugitives from China, began to raise funds for their struggle with the production and sale of drugs.
The geographical location of the “Golden Triangle” contributed to the success of their activities. The mountains and the jungle areas well-known to rebel groups allowed them to deter attacks from government troops. In addition, two large rivers merge here, the Ruak and the Mekong. The Mekong is one of the great rivers of Asia and the main waterway of the whole Indochinese region. It begins in the Tibetan Plateau, flows through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and flows out into the South China Sea. Furthermore, the Mekong has numerous tributaries. Access to it allowed drug traffickers to transport products on fishing vessels to every part of the peninsula as well as ports on the seacoast. Through numerous intermediaries in Indochina, China, India and other countries, opium and heroin spread around the globe, which has continued for decades.
The states of Indochina and the People’s Republic of China fought drug dealers with both forceful and peaceful methods. In the 1970s, Thailand granted mass-citizenship to local nationalities and foreigners from China who lived on its “triangle” site in exchange for ceasing to grow opium poppy. The planted areas vacated as a result, became tea plantations.
All the while, military operations continued. In 1996, the army of Myanmar (formerly Burma) was able to take Homein, where one of the most powerful separatist groups, the Mon-Thai Army, was based. Their leader, Khun Sa, one of the largest drug barons of the “Golden Triangle”, was taken prisoner. After giving up many of his accomplices, he disappeared from public view and died under arrest in 2007.
After the defeat of the Mon-Thai army, many other separatists began negotiations with the government, leaving the armed struggle and drug trafficking behind. Some even formed political parties that participated legally in the elections. The lands of the Shan people officially became a Myanmar state called Shan.
This led the media to say that the “Golden Triangle” as a center of international crime and drug production, had come to an end.
In 2017, the “Golden Triangle” is visited by tourists who come for holidays in Thailand. Various guides invite them to visit the world’s only Opium Museum, open in the region, and say that the production of drugs in these places is a thing of the past.
This is perhaps true for Thailand, and specifically for this region, located on the border with Laos and Myanmar. However, in general, drug production in Indochina has not diminished, but rather its locations have become unclear. In Shan, the authority of local Shan leaders is still higher than that of the central government of Myanmar. Large groups of separatists continue to exist, currently in a truce with the authorities (for example, the “United Wa State Army”). The region is flooded with illegal migrants from China, many of whom are still engaged in illegal activities.
China is one of the main targets of drug trafficking. A large population with a growing income level is a perfect market for any commodity, including illegal goods. A large number of insurgent groups on the Sino-Myanmar border facilitate transition of such goods to criminals.
In June 2015, the PRC government issued a report on combating the spread of drugs. It was stated that in 2014, Chinese authorities seized 9.3 tons of heroin and 11.4 tons of methamphetamine, and that 90 percent of this volume was produced in the countries of the “Golden Triangle”, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. At the same time it was previously reported that in the autumn and winter of 2014 alone, 60,500 people suspected of drug trafficking were arrested.
The PRC is known for its rigidity and uncompromising attitude in the fight against drug trafficking. This is unsurprising, since for China drugs are not only a social problem that threatens the life and health of the population, but also a painful memory of national humiliation during the period known as the “Opium Wars”. Having had enough of the flow of drugs from its nearest neighbors, the PRC took the lead in the war on drugs across Indochina.
In December 2011, with a push on the part of the PRC, units created jointly by China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand began to patrol the Mekong. Most of the patrols were sent to the “Golden Triangle” area. The impetus for the creation of these water divisions was a tragedy that occurred in October 2011, when 13 citizens of the PRC were killed in the “Golden Triangle”. The investigation found that the crime was committed by a group of soldiers from Thailand, who smuggled drugs from Myanmar. The patrols’ work is paid for by China, which has also undertaken arming and training police in Laos and Myanmar at their own expense. Since then, joint patrols of the Mekong waters have been conducted regularly. The 59th patrol (the first patrol having been held in 2011), began in June 2017 and involved 8 ships and 204 law enforcement officers.
At the end of June 2017, a new department for the joint monitoring of illicit drug trafficking began, created by China, Laos and Vietnam. A number of similar organizations are already working on the Indochina Peninsula, which the PRC established jointly with these countries, as well as with Myanmar.
At the same time, it must be recognized that the situation with illegal drug production and trafficking in Indochina is still difficult. Despite the efforts of each of the countries in the region, Indochina remains one of the main producers of banned substances, along with Afghanistan and the countries of Latin America. However, in the coming years the situation may change, given China’s growing regional influence.
Over the past 50-70 years, the whole of the Indochina Peninsula has become entangled with the network of the drug trade. It is transnational, and therefore rather difficult for regional states (Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand) to fight drug trafficking on their own. Most of the criminal groups have accomplices in other countries. They are based in the borderlands and in the event of danger they can leave quickly for a neighboring state to continue their activities there. Only the joint actions of all countries in the Indochinese region can put an end to the drug business. The events of recent years show that a strong leader has emerged in the region, able to lead the countries of Indochina and coordinate their work: China. Through economic and political cooperation with all countries of the region, it has gained influence and authority with neighbors. The beginning of joint patrolling of the Mekong River basin with the participation of Chinese law enforcers shows that the Chinese influence in Indochina has reached unprecedented heights. Indeed, few states would tolerate foreign power structures on their territory. It seems that the fight against drug trafficking in this region will now rise to an entirely new level.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”