The Drugs Trade in a Time of Covid-19: Still Rolling
The Covid-19 pandemic and associated movement restrictions have not inhibited the drugs trade in around the Golden Triangle. In fact it appears to have worsened it.
The movement restrictions imposed to contain the Covid-19 pandemic have not affected drug production and trafficking in Mekong region countries. In fact, there are indications that the drugs trade has continued to flourish, Covid-19 or not.
The number of illicit drug seizures by Thai law enforcement officers escalated from 21 cases in 2020 to 68 cases this year, partly a result of Myanmar’s military coup and ongoing conflict between the military government in Naypyidaw and ethnic groups located along the Thai-Myanmar border.
The drug trade is the financial mainstay of transnational organised crime and some ethnic minority militias in Myanmar as they compete to control autonomous territories along Myanmar’s borders, including those with Thailand. The Golden Triangle, a region where Thailand’s Chiang Rai province borders Myanmar and Laos, is a critical area. The area is the main manufacturing and trafficking centre from which illicit drugs are transported to the rest of Asia and beyond. According to a report from the Office of the Narcotics Control Board of Thailand (ONCB), illicit drugs seized by law enforcement officials since the beginning of 2021 included 825 kg of crystal methamphetamine (ice), 1.5 million methamphetamine tablets, referred to in Thai as ‘ya-ba’ (crazy drug), 2,552 kg of ketamine (also known as K), and 437,027 ecstasy pills. The drugs, which were in transit from Thailand to other countries, are estimated to be worth at least US$70 billion.
Most of the illicit drugs seized were destined for overseas locations, including Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. According to data from the ONCB, Australia is the primary overseas destination of drugs smuggled from Thailand. In 2020, more than 30 kg of crystal methamphetamine (also known as ice) and 62 kg of heroin were seized by the Thai authorities before they could be shipped to Australia.
From the beginning of 2021 till November, more than 321 kg of ice and 22 kg of heroin bound for Australia were seized at Thai customs points. More than 316 kg of ice transported from Thailand were seized in Australia. Drug smugglers concealed their products, such as in buckets of thick paint or wrapped in tea packets, before the substances reached hired couriers at their destinations. Recently, smugglers have also pivoted from airports to shipping routes to transfer their products across the region.
The number of illegal drugs sent from Thailand to Singapore is also increasing relative to last year (Table 1). To transport drugs to their customers in Singapore, the drug gangs used a different technique, usually shipping their products to Singaporean addresses by post. The narcotic dealers hid their products in snacks or desserts and sent them via express mail or regular mail to addresses in Singapore. According to the author’s interview with Mr Wichai Chaimongkhon, Secretary-General of the Narcotics Control Board, Singaporean drug dealers living in Thailand typically sell narcotics via online messaging orders and payment apps. They will ship out their products via regular mail. Upon receiving investigating reports from Singaporean authorities, the Thai police would begin to track the origin of these dealers.
The surging number of drug seizures in Thailand demonstrates that the Covid-19 crisis had minimal impact on organised crime and drug trafficking. In addition to the development of drug production techniques, the coup in Myanmar and clashes between the military and minority groups have, in fact, reportedly accelerated drug trafficking from Myanmar to the Thai border, especially in the Northern and Western regions.
The level of sophistication in drugs production has also improved. Before 2010, single- and double-punch tabletting machines were used to produce synthetic drugs. Subsequently, dealers adopted automatic hydraulic rotary press machines to manufacture illegal drugs, making 180,000 tablets per hour — 10 times more than previously. According to an ONCB informant, the smuggling of precursor chemicals from China, India and South Korea enabled the production of increased quantities of drugs in the Golden Triangle area and the subsequent shipment of those drugs to Thailand.
… the only immediate way to stop the flood of narcotics in Thailand is to stop the supply of precursor chemicals necessary to manufacture these illegal drugs from entering the Golden Triangle region.
According to an AFP report, the UNODC has warned regional governments of a larger flood of illegal drugs as the crisis in Myanmar becomes more intense or the economy collapses. These trends in Myanmar would also accelerate narcotics production, which is an important income source for some insurgent groups and militias who reside along the borders of Thailand. This would only be exacerbated by Myanmar’s severe instability, weakening drug law enforcement units within Myanmar’s government.
The declining market price of illegal drugs, especially methamphetamines, is evidence of the influx of drug products into Thailand. A methamphetamine tablet now cost as little as 50 baht (US$2) in June 2021, a sharp drop from previous prices of 100-200 baht (US$4-6) in the beginning of 2020. Price changes are primarily due to supply increases rather than any decrease in demand.
The increasing availability of drugs threatens to exacerbate Thailand’s drug-control challenges. According to an ONCB informant, the only immediate way to stop the flood of narcotics in Thailand is to stop the supply of precursor chemicals necessary to manufacture these illegal drugs from entering the Golden Triangle region. In December 2019, Thailand worked with six Mekong countries to launch the ‘Golden Triangle 1511’ operation to combat drug syndicates operating in that area. The operation led to more drugs being seized and many drug traffickers were arrested. The successful operation highlighted the need for cooperation among law enforcement agencies to combat drug smuggling and transnational crime in the region. Thailand will have to continue to work closely with its neighbours, particularly under the spirit of Golden Triangle 1511 operation, to curtail the flood of drugs into the kingdom. At any rate, such operations will reap more dividends than waiting for a solution to Myanmar’s political crisis.
Punchada Sirivunnabood was Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.