Rising economic integration in Southeast Asia is providing new opportunities for criminal networks to expand methamphetamine and synthetic drug trafficking in the region, according to delegates at a UN Office on Drugs and Crime conference in Yangon.
While regional economic development is often seen as a boon, its effects have brought downsides as well, bringing “increased development of criminal networks”, said David Harding, technical adviser at the NGO Friends International.
As Southeast Asian countries work to establish the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) by 2015, strengthening trade links have left Cambodia in a “perfect situation for these criminal networks to flourish” due to uneven development and its own porous borders.
“Cambodia has become a more desirable place to operate – there’s more money, better transport, it’s kind of inevitable really,” said Harding.
Because of trafficking, some hard drugs such as ice, heroin, and meth destined for places from Australia to Japan “fall off” and remain in Cambodia for sale and consumption, noted Harding, although such drugs are increasingly produced in the country itself.
According to the UNODC’s 2013 World Drug Report, Cambodia’s meth pill seizures increased 189 per cent between 2010 and 2011, the largest jump in the region.
“It’s very difficult to tell if the situation is improving – while there have been high-profile discoveries, it’s possible that as production increases, there’s a higher chance [the authorities] will find it,” said Harding.
The Royal Government of Cambodia and other partners estimated last year that the country has 13,000 drug users, though Harding said that since doing research about illegal activities is so difficult, “you can probably multiply that by five and come close to the reality”.
This dark side to economic integration means “no country can combat the drug problem alone,” wrote Jeremy Douglas, UNODC regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in an email.
And drug trafficking not only harms users, but also local economies and the rule of law, says the UN.
“It can’t be ignored that the billions generated for organised crime exceed the size of several national economies in the region,” Douglas said in a statement. “Where is the money going?”