Mekong Eye

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Drug production in Laos and Myanmar still a major threat

As long as farmers can make more money from opium poppy than from other crops, the problem will continue. And as long as criminal groups can act with impunity in permissive environments, nothing will change.

Poppies in Shan state of Myanmar, wikimedia commons

By John Coyne

Shan State, January 23, 2018


In December 2017, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its latest report on opium production in Myanmar and, at face value, the news was good. Since 2015, the area of cultivated opium poppy in Myanmar’s Shan and Kachin states has decreased by 25% to 41,000 hectares. And, for good measure, heroin seizures in China, Cambodia and Thailand increased dramatically over the same period. The Royal Thai Police reported an impressive 278% (264 kilogram) increase in heroin seizures for 2017.

Despite this ‘good news’, authorities—especially those in Australia—shouldn’t be too quick to declare that the war on drugs in the Mekong Delta is working or that the organised crime threat there has diminished. The UNDOC survey found that, overall, Myanmar’s poppy fields are producing 15% higher yields compared to 2015, so the reduction in the area under cultivation hasn’t had any impact on heroin supply in countries such as Thailand, China and Australia. Compelling evidence suggests that criminal groups in the Golden Triangle, or at least in Laos and Myanmar, still present a very real threat to law and order and stability.

The reduction in poppy cultivation could have something to do with changes in organised crime activity in the Golden Triangle. With user demand for heroin stabilising globally, and Afghan poppy cultivation increasing, many criminal groups in the Golden Triangle are shifting their focus to producing and distributing synthetic drugs. Since 2015, ‘East and South-East Asia have become the leading subregions for methamphetamine seizures worldwide’.

The UNODC’s World drug report 2017 revealed that criminal groups in Laos and Myanmar have become significant players in the global production of synthetic drugs (primarily methamphetamines). The numerous ungoverned spaces in Laos and Myanmar provide criminal groups with safe environments for producing large quantities of both low- and high-purity methamphetamine. The region’s contribution to Australia’s illicit drug problems has been frequently highlighted in the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission’s illicit drug data reports.

Low-purity amphetamine tablets are sold in many ASEAN countries as ‘yaba’. The yaba market is a low-profit, high-sales-volume opportunity for criminal groups, which produce pills in the tens to hundreds of millions. In 2016, Thai police seized 215.58 million yaba tablets. In contrast, crystal methamphetamine (or ice) is produced for markets in China and Australia. While sales volumes in those markets are relatively low, the profit margins are high.

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