BANGKOK – Burma’s increasing amphetamine production is contributing to the worldwide rise of synthetic drugs use, with the Mekong River now a key route for drug trafficking from the Golden Triangle, a drug-producing region in the Burma, Laos and Thailand borderlands.

Burma is the prime source for the growing use of amphetamines across southeast Asia in particular, with 133 million pills seized by police in 2010, up from 94 million the previous year and 32 million in 2008.

In February 2010, Laos authorities made a single seizure of 21.8 million pills, which was “believed to have originated from Myanmar” and was “evidently headed for Thailand”, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which adds that “the majority of the methamphetamine pills found in the country is sourced from Myanmar.”

The findings were published in the 2011 Global ATS Report, compiled by the UNODC, which “is mandated to assist Member States in their struggle against illicit drugs, crime and terrorism” and provides research and technical assistance on these issues to countries around the world.

Earlier in 2011 the UNODC pointed to an increase in opium production in Burma – “where cultivation rose by some 20 per cent from 2009”. This means that as of 2010, Burma was producing 12% of the world’s total opium output.

Synthetic, non plant-based drugs such as ecstasy and metamphetamines – part of the ‘Amphetamine Type Stimulants’ (ATS) category of narcotic – are now the second-most consumed drug in the world, second to cannabis and ahead of heroin and cocaine. In several Asia countries, ATS are the “primary illicit drug threat”, exceeding cannabis, with a fourfold increase in ATS seizures by police over the 2008-2010 period.

Southeast Asia and Burma are at the centre of this upsurge. According to the UNODC, “metamphetamine pills, which are manufactured the Shan state of Myanmar, are trafficked along new routes to Thailand, China and Lao PDR”. The report adds that there are “indications of new routes to the western part of Myanmar” for trafficking on to south Asia, with rising ATS use in India and Bangladesh.

“Over the past five years, ATS manufacture has spread to new regions”, according to the report. Countries that were once transit points for the drugs – such as Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia – are now emerging as producers, while countries such as Vietnam are showing “significant increases in use since 2008”.

However China, Burma and the Philippines remain the main ATS manufacturing countries in Asia, and overall, east and southeast Asia were site of half the world’s ATS seizures by police.

“ATS appeal to users because they are thought to boost work performance”, said Gary Lewis, UNODC representative in Asia, who was speaking at a Bangkok press conference to launch the ATS report. He added that the perceived health risks and social stigma associated with amphetamine use is lower than with plant-based drugs that are smoked or injected.

On the supply side, ATS are a low-investment, high profit sector, with production possible anywhere and therefore close to point of sale. ATS production can be quickly dismantled and relocated should law enforcement agency pressure arise, and the substances can be made using an array of starting materials, or ‘precursors’, which in turn can be made from a precursor chemical if necessary.

The findings come after Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra last Sunday announced a plan to eradicate 80% of drug use and drug trafficking within one year, sparking concerns about a regression to policies utilised by her brother and Prime Minister predecessor Thaksin Shinawatra. As part of his controversial 2003 “War on Drugs” over 2500 people were killed, many extra-judicially, in a crackdown later cited as part-justification by Thaksin’s domestic political opponents for their campaign to have him removed from office.

Last Wednesday a Thai military checkpoint sought to stop a truck near the northern town of Chiang Rai, acting on an apparent tip-off that the vehicle was transporting drugs smuggled across the nearby border with Burma. The truck evaded capture, it seems, and was later found abandoned along with a consignment of 95kg of of crystal methamphetamine and 3.4kg of heroin.

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