Yesterday we looked at a Cambodian film, I Am Super Student, which has become an unlikely hit in the kingdom. This quirky title belies its heavy theme. While the slickly produced film may tell a compelling story, lightened by a few laughs, the movie’s premise is sadly rooted in reality: Cambodia has a drug problem.
While large chunks of Southeast Asia have had to grapple with drug abuse, due to geography Cambodia is unfortunately something of a crossroads through which a myriad of highly addictive, life threatening substances routinely pass.
“The manufacture, trafficking and use of illicit drugs through Cambodia continue to grow, as the production particularly in Southern Shan State in Burma triggers a spill over effect in surrounding countries,” Olivier Lermet from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Phnom Penh told The Diplomat. “In recent years, Cambodia has become a growing transit location in the Asia Pacific region and is being increasingly targeted as a potential producing base.”
Indeed, as Lermet points out, last year Cambodian law enforcement authorities seized record amounts of crystalline methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine, most of which was linked to transnational organized crime and destined for international markets across the Asia-Pacific region, from Australia to Taiwan and Thailand. Aside from the illicit merchandise bound for overseas black markets, domestic drug users tend towards the harder end of the spectrum.
“Over 80 percent of all (Cambodian) drug users use methamphetamines, followed by heroin, inhalants and other drugs, including cannabis,” Lermet added. “Methamphetamine pills (yaba/yama) are the most widely used drug in Cambodia, although crystalline methamphetamine is becoming more widely available and its use is on the rise, particularly in Phnom Penh and among youth.”
Who puts themselves in such harm’s way? According to Lermet, an estimated 77 percent of all drug users in Cambodia are younger than 26. While illicit drug use was traditionally rife in urban settings, it has begun to spread to the nation’s rural areas in recent years, particularly along the Lao and Thai border regions.
A major driver behind the rise of addiction among youth is the sheer accessibility of drugs. On their ubiquity, GoSihanoukville.com, a web portal to a premier Cambodian beach resort warns foreign visitors: “Trust us – don't bother looking for it – it will inevitably find you.” Indeed, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville are reputed to have a live and let live attitude to drug use.
Line producer of I Am Super Student, Allan Cheung, seconds this point, telling The Diplomat, “It is reported that foreigners requesting cocaine are sometimes provided with heroin instead.”
Yet, Cambodia is not alone. The entire region has a history of being deeply entangled in the drug trade.
Three decades ago, the Golden Triangle produced 70 percent of the world’s opium. This drug output has largely shifted to the Golden Crescent, centered on Afghanistan, which is now the source of 92 percent of the world’s opium, according to the UN, as reported by The New York Times.
While this is good news for the so-called War on Drugs, the real problem has shifted to the producing countries themselves. For the Indochinese region surrounding Cambodia, the drugs of choice may differ, but their devastating effects are universal. Users in Burma and Vietnam prefer to shoot heroin, while Cambodians prefer amphetamines uppers like methamphetamine.
“Crystalline methamphetamine is the biggest problem drug for Cambodia,” Lermet said. “The methamphetamine pills (yaba/yama) market is largely confined to the Greater Mekong Subregion and almost exclusively a concern in Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam… It is possible that it got introduced and transmitted by migrants or truckers to working communities in Lao PDR and Cambodia.”
Yet, tracing the route by which drugs are moved is only a start. The true origin of Southeast Asia’s drug problem is knotted up in a host of social problems afflicting a wide swath of the socioeconomic spectrum from impoverished urban youth to members of the middle class and even upper class professionals with money to burn.
“Typically, most teenagers in Cambodia who get involved with drugs start by smoking marijuana…a ‘gateway drug’,” Cheung said. “Drug abuse is increasing among street children and rates of HIV/AIDS are increasing due to intravenous drug usage.”
Along with the spread of AIDS and other deadly blood-borne diseases, where drugs pop up, a host of other dangerous variables follow, from violence involving criminal peddlers to chemical explosions or even car accidents – events that can claim the lives of innocent bystanders. The reasons behind the decision to put oneself in such harm’s way may be hard to fathom for many, but the profile of an average user is anything but straightforward.
“Drug use does not necessarily evolve from poverty – it is a more complex issue,” Lermet explained. “It can be a result of poverty and at the same time it can also lead to poverty. The drug problem touches all levels of society.” Yaba/yama, for example, has traditionally been the preferred drug of the working class – namely truckers and manual labourers who use it for a cheap physical boost – as well as students and sex workers. “Drug use among women appears to be on the rise as well,” Lermet added.
Acknowledging the widespread nature of this epidemic, law enforcement officials and health professionals are pushing a number of initiatives in the hopes of severing the problem from its root. There are a few key trends at play. One, there is a need for cooperation across borders – this is an international problem. And two, as a counterbalance, there is a growing awareness of the need to treat those struggling with addiction compassionately.
“As in most countries, there is a high level of stigmatization and condemnation of drug use and dependence in Cambodia,” Lermet said. “To reduce stigma at local village level and to create awareness among communities, voluntary community-based treatment has been developed as a sustainable drug treatment alternative.”
The Community Based Treatment (CBTx) Program, championed by the Cambodian government, with support from the United Nations, has seen promising results in reducing drug dependence and providing psycho social and healthcare to drug users. The program’s key word is “rehabilitation”.
“This is a big step to fight the problem of drug use and dependence as it shifts the focus of drug dependence and usage as a health issue that requires treatment and not as a criminal issue that requires punitive measures,” Lermet continued. “Drug users are now less likely to hide and are more likely to engage with NGOs and local authorities due to a more supportive law enforcement environment… This development is the key to reducing the stigma in communities.”
Of course, much work remains to be done. “In recent years drug control in Cambodia has made impressive achievements,” Cheung added. “But we should not forget that this problem affects everyone. Drug production in Cambodia is not only intended for the domestic market. It is intended for the world.”