A Surge in Southeast Asian Transnational Crime?

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As ASEAN prepares to forge a more cohesive community by the end of 2015, Thai officials are warning that an integrated region could also exacerbate the problem of transnational organized crime and undermine efforts to tackle it.

“We may face new challenges or new threats, such as transnational crime,” Thai foreign minister Tanasak Patimapragorn told The Bangkok Post in a special interview published on Tuesday.

In a separate conversation with the Thai newspaper, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, permanent secretary of the country’s Foreign Minister, also said that a borderless community in ASEAN could lead to new challenges, including a rise in human trafficking, illegal immigration, drugs and transnational crime.

The statements by Thai officials echo earlier concerns by various organizations about how ASEAN integration could exacerbate the rising threat of transnational crime regionally and subregionally. For instance, earlier this year, the United Nations Office of Drug Control (UNODC) warned that opium poppy cultivation in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos – the geographic center of the Greater Mekong subregion (GMS) – is rising rapidly, and that transnational organized crime in the broader ASEAN region generates more than $100 billion annually.

“Without effective and integrated border management, law enforcement and justice strategies, organized criminal groups will continue to expand without respect for borders and the sovereignty of states, threatening prosperity and public security,” Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC’s regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, cautioned in October.

If the UN’s $100 billion figure is correct, Apichai Sunchindah, the former executive director of the ASEAN Foundation, says it would vastly overshadow the estimated $30 billion earmarked for projects under the Regional Investment Framework of the ADB-led GMS program for the next few years. Given this, Apichai warned that while the gross domestic product of countries in the region may rise, the “gross criminal product” will increase as well and perhaps even outpace the legitimate economy.

“One can wonder if the outcomes of such integrative processes will benefit the crime syndicates more than law-abiding citizens. If this becomes the case, then there are questions about the rationality of undertaking such developmental schemes,” Apichai wrote in an op-ed earlier this week.

Within ASEAN, Thailand remains a major source, transit point, and destination for regional and subregional transnational organized crime activities. In June, the U.S. State Department named Thailand as one of the world’s worst centers for human trafficking. And just last month, Thai justice minister Paiboon Koomchaya and the country’s Office of Narcotics Control Board admitted that Thailand had become the hub of the drug trade within ASEAN.

Thailand’s ruling military junta, which took power following a coup in May, has made tackling transnational crime one of its top priorities. Since coming to power, it has streamlined efforts to crack down on transnational gangs, instituted a three-phased roadmap to address illegal immigration and human trafficking, and shored up the country’s drug treatment and rehabilitation process. Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has himself vowed to improve his country’s record on transnational crime, and will personally head a committee dedicated to illegal immigration and human trafficking this year.

The issue has also been prioritized in various bilateral and multilateral meetings and fora. Bilaterally, in December alone, Thailand’s police academy jointly organized a conference with its Vietnamese counterpart on the specific issue of combating transnational crime in the context of the establishment of the ASEAN Community, while China and Thailand agreed to step up their cooperation in the fight against illegal immigration and terrorism. Multilaterally, Thailand is set to ratify a pact covering terrorism, transnational crime and drug trafficking of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation grouping and will soon open up a coordinating office with three other Mekong countries.

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