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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia moving into drug world's big league

Cambodia moving into drug world's big league

Busted! With the word 'yama' written in Khmer in tablets, police carefully expose a wide variety of objects found at the home of major drug suspect, Lum Sokheng, ranging from an automatic weapon to a drug distilling machine and its products. See CAMBODIA.

A recent raid on yet another "meth lab" has exposed disturbing new evidence

that Cambodia is moving into high-level drug production and experimentation, with

some narcotics destined for foreign markets, local experts and police have told the

Post.

The drug lab raided on August 2 in Phnom Penh's Dangkor district - allegedly belonging

to Lum Sokheng, 31, arrested the same day and later charged for drug production -

was initially touted by local press as Cambodia's biggest ever drug production facility

raid.

Police are now saying that the earlier March 31 raid of a "super lab" in

Kampong Speu was larger in terms of quantity of materials. The Kampong Speu facility,

however, was only producing raw materials, while the Dangkor site was designed for

the final stage in amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) production - and also as a testing

ground for new generations of increasingly potent methamphetamines.

"As police are now cracking down on a lot of drug trafficking, offenders are

turning from trafficking pills to importing the equipment for experimental laboratories

and mixing new chemicals with the drugs," Moek Dara, anti-drug police chief

at the Ministry of Interior, told the Post on August 8.

Dara said the facility at Dangkor was primarily an experimental laboratory for the

production of new ATS.

"In 2006, we raided nine experimental laboratories and confiscated more than

half a million [methamphetamine or 'yama'] pills, 50 kg of heroin, as well as 'ice'

[crystal methamphetamine]," Dara said. "In the first six months of 2007,

police raided three big production and experimentation facilities: the first in Kampong

Speu, second in Prek Phnov and now the one in Phnom Penh."

Military police arrest drug suspect on August 2.

Sao Sokha, chief of the National Military Police, who executed the recent Dangkor

raid, told the Post the police had been observing Lam Sokheng for a year before his

arrest. Sokheng was found with 870 "yama" pills, 47 ecstasy tablets, 3

bags of ketamine and 250 grams of crystal methamphetamine.

"This was a large-scale operation, and it was surprising for our forces to raid

a drug production site in Phnom Penh," said Sokha, as drug production facilities

are usually located in less accessible rural areas. "We confiscated laboratory

machinery, $100,000 worth of counterfeit notes, a car and an [automatic machine]

gun. Drug use is not just a concern for me alone - it is a problem for society as

a whole. When the country has many drug users, what will this country look like?"

"Now our forces are looking further to apprehend others," Sokha added.

Lars Pedersen, new head of the Cambodian branch of UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNOCD),

said his office is still investigating the raid.

"This laboratory was more upstream in the drug production process," Pedersen

told the Post. "Kampong Speu only produced the raw materials for 'ice' or 'yama.'"

Pedersen said the latest lab raided was a worrying development as it was involved

in the final production of these drugs.

"Drugs are trafficked in and out of Cambodia, but now these new labs [indicate]

there is probably significant production going on."

Pedersen said drugs produced in Cambodia would more than likely be destined for Thailand.

"There is a more oppressive war on drugs in Thailand, and so Thai drug traffickers

are forced to take other routes."

He said the traditional routes come down through Myanmar or Laos. Drugs produced

in Myanmar often end up being trafficked down the Mekong into Cambodia - ultimately

destined mainly for Vietnam and Thailand.

"They are also trafficked out from the airport and Kampong Som, on the way to

places like, Australia, the US or Europe. But many drugs are consumed here,"

Pedersen said. This confirmed Phnom Penh Police Chief Touch Narith's earlier comment

to the Post that Phnom Penh is a major transit point for heroin and ATS in South

East Asia.

According to a August 7 UNODC report on the East Asia and Pacific region, 60 percent

of the world's 25 million abusers of ATS reside in Asia. Recent drug laboratory seizures

indicate that methamphetamine is produced on an "industrial scale" in Asia,

and opium and heroin are fast becoming "out-dated," reported the UNODC.

The recent police raids on "super-labs" in China and Cambodia, show that

both these countries are now moving into significant "ice" production,

which has traditionally been the domain of Burma, the region's main producer of methamphetamines

and heroin.

"Ice is very lucrative because of its purity. You can cut it later," said

the report, but the less pure 'yama' ('yaa baa' or 'crazy drug' as it is known in

Thailand), or ordinary methamphetamine remains the main ATS sold in Thailand, Cambodia,

Laos and Myanmar.

Production of heroin in Myanmar has been drastically cut in the last decade, as a

new generation of Asian drug abusers turn to ATS.

"Heroin users tend to be older, while methamphetamine is really sweeping in

to Asia's youth culture," the report said. In Cambodia ATS abuse is now also

a far bigger concern than heroin abuse, according to the report.

"Cambodia is determined to eliminate drug use, trafficking and production by

2015 in compliance with ASEAN 'no drugs' principles," said Dara.

Despite recent NACD figures indicating the first decline in national drug abuse since

1999, Pedersen said it was too early to be optimistic. "There's a lot of uncertainty,

and we're still looking into it," he said. "The NACD have reported 5,000

registered drug abusers for the first quarter of 2007, but the number of ATS drug

abusers [alone] is estimated at anywhere from 10,000 to 75,000, and I think it would

be on the upper side of this."

ATS account for 78 percent of all drug abuse in Cambodia, but Pedersen's main concern

is who is actually using drugs in the Kingdom.

"Drug abuse in Cambodia is first and foremost a youth problem," he said.

"Twelve percent of all drug abusers are students, and availability of drugs

in schools is definitely increasing. Street kids account for 17 percent of all drug

abusers. Eighty percent of youth drug abuse is with methamphetamines."

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