With more than a little bit of help from Iran, it would appear the region’s notorious Golden Triangle—one of Asia's two main illegal opium-producing areas—is back in business. It’s still a far cry from the heady days of the opium warlords Khun Sa and Law Sit Han, but according to the United Nations the area is reinventing itself as a factory for methamphetamine production.
Peddling of synthetic drugs, in particular meth, tripled during 2009 across South-east Asia and much of East Asia. The figures were announced just after Anand Grover, a UN Special Rapporteur on health, declared all appeared lost in the ‘War on Drugs’ and sensibly called for legal regulation of illegal narcotics.
More than 94 million methamphetamine pills were seized across East and South-east Asia in 2009, compared with about 32 million in 2008. Also, 6.9 tons of Ketamine—seen as a cheaper alternative to the recreational and clubbing drug Ecstasy—were seized, up from 6.3 tons the previous year.
In the mountains along the overlapping borders of Thailand, Laos and Burma, producers have been busy, and according to the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) the Iranians operating within Asian drug networks are also a major concern.
The number of Iranians charged with trafficking and manufacturing last year was up significantly, and the authorities believe Iran’s traditional role as a transit point for opium into Europe had allowed syndicates access to South-east Asia following a shift in emphasis to methamphetamines. Criminal groups from Africa, Syria and Turkey were also noted, but Iranian traffickers were the most prominent with arrests for trafficking and methamphetamine seizures in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, as meth use soared to record levels.
But the big push in the region came from Burma, where most methamphetamines in pill form were produced. The report said the uncertain political situation there over 2009 and 2010—ahead of recent national elections—resulted in increased trafficking.It may also have accelerated the relocation of clandestine laboratories into neighbouring countries along the border area for production of synthetic drugs, which it described as a critically emerging threat to the region.
The UNODC noted the vast number of pills seized pointed to undetected manufacturing in the Golden Triangle, with equipment probably supplied from China and Thailand.
Previous Burmese drug lords and their relatives have well-established links to the junta and have since left the illicit and tawdry trade, attempting to establish themselves in legitimate businesses.
However, they are often dogged by the United States and turn up on State Department blacklists barring them from working with US citizens for using funds derived from the drug trade.