The 'Shadowlands' Of Southeast Asia's Illicit Networks: Meth, Dancing Queens And More

Sep 11, 2018
Originally published on September 14, 2018 10:02 am

Southeast Asia's economy is booming, increasing at an average of 5 percent per year. Thanks to an expanding consumer market, a young, robust workforce and increasing regional cooperation, it's only expected to grow.

But as it does, so do the region's black markets: drugs, human trafficking, animal trafficking. It's this world of underground organized crime that is the topic of journalist Patrick Winn's new book, Hello, Shadlowlands: Inside the Meth Fiefdoms, Rebel Hideouts and Bomb-Scarred Party Towns of Southeast Asia.

Based in Bangkok, Winn is the Asia correspondent for Public Radio International's The World and has spent a decade trying to understand how crime groups are allowed to thrive in a region where democracy is in retreat.

"When some people hear 'authoritarian rule,' they think squeaky-clean streets and no crime, but that's not the case," Winn tells NPR's Morning Edition.

In the book, Winn argues how and why "authoritarian, capitalist-style" governments are fertile ground for criminal networks to exist. He tells this story through drug fiefdoms in Myanmar that help fuel the world's largest methamphetamine trade, women selling illegal contraceptives in the Philippines and entertainers exported from North Korea to work in state-run restaurants across Southeast Asia — among others.

Winn argues that whether it's pushing hot-pink speed pills, snatching up people's pets to sell into Vietnam's dog meat market or taking up prostitution, people working outside the law "can oftentimes be quite relatable. They are all making rational choices in a rather extreme environment."

The following highlights from the interview are edited and condensed for clarity.


INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On how authoritarian rule allows crime to thrive

For the most part in Southeast Asia, this style of governance has become very popular, and I would call it sort of an authoritarian capitalist style where there's one-party rule. There's an interesting side effect to that where, when you have an authoritarian government, you have untouchable police. And when the police are untouchable, they have impunity and police chiefs can then, if they have an entrepreneurial streak, invite criminal networks to exist under that umbrella of impunity — a very fancy way of saying criminals pay them not to get arrested.

On the largest methamphetamine trade in the world

A lot of people might have it in their heads from shows like Breaking Bad that the world's largest meth trade is coming out of Mexico. That's not true anymore. It's happening in Southeast Asia, specifically in northern Myanmar up near the border with China.

Drug labs up there are churning out 2 [billion] to 6 billion methamphetamine tablets per year, and that's more than Starbucks sells cups of coffee worldwide every year. The scale is obscene and the only way that they're able to do that is because they are not getting cracked down upon by the ruling states. A lot of [these tablets] go into China and Thailand. And these drug lords are very clever, they're seeking out new ground. Now a lot are flowing into Bangladesh, a majority Islamic country on the other side of Myanmar. Seizures of meth tablets have gone up in the last 10 years in Bangladesh by 80,000 percent.

On Pyongyang's "dancing queens"

In Southeast Asia, there is a franchise of restaurants that is operated by the North Korean state. The appeal of the restaurant is not the food, it's the performers. These women, who have been raised since childhood to exalt the Kim regime in North Korea, some of them get outsourced to these restaurants and they perform songs. They're quite talented.

It's not prostitution at all. In fact, these women, by North Korean standards, are considered to have quite high status. One thing I wanted to do in writing this book is not to avoid moral complexity. I think it would be much easier for me to just say this is forced labor. So I actually went to South Korea, and I talked to a [North Korean] woman who wasn't working in a restaurant, but she was from the same arts and propaganda scene. And I said, "What do you think? Are they slaves?" She was terribly offended. Absolutely not. These people, they're the pride of their families. There are many, many North Koreans who would like to be in that position. So I try to leave it up to the reader.

On China's effect on Southeast Asia

It used to be that heroin sold on the streets of New York City was coming out of Myanmar or Burma. That's because the drug lords back in the '60s and '70s had to find a market, people who had a bunch of money that's disposable. China is soon to become the world's biggest economy and you have plenty of people there who can afford things. So the market for illegal things such as drugs is increasing as well. That means that [Southeast Asian drug dealers] don't have to go farther afield to sell their wares to sell their drugs.

China has this One Belt One Road plan, where they want to stitch together the world with highways and ports and airports and train lines so that commerce can move in these arteries and bring things to and from China. Well, when you have more infrastructure, that's great for a smuggler. He or she can now move things from A to B much, much more easily.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The writer Patrick Winn has spent a decade in Southeast Asia. He spent much of that time exploring black markets in drugs, in people, even in dogs. He has also reported on the way that people push back against crime when their governments do not. Winn conducted interviews for his book, "Hello, Shadowlands," in Southeast Asian countries. Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, the Philippines and others have different kinds of governments, sometimes more democratic, sometimes not at all. But one thing they share is criminal activity when the rule of law erodes. Patrick Winn joins us from Bangkok. Welcome to the program.

PATRICK WINN: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: I just want to underline, we're talking about in most cases authoritarian governments, some of them military rulers, in one case, a communist government. I guess the big appeal of an authoritarian government is they say they're going to keep order. How do they do at keeping order?

WINN: Not so well. So when some people hear authoritarian rule, they think squeaky-clean streets and no crime, but that's not really the case. For the most part, in Southeast Asia, this style of governance has become very popular. And I would call it sort of an authoritarian, capitalist-style, where there's one-party rule. And there's an interesting side effect to that where when you have an authoritarian government, you have untouchable police, they have impunity. And police chiefs can then invite criminal networks to exist under that umbrella of impunity, which is a very fancy way of saying criminals pay them not to get arrested.

INSKEEP: Is that what you found when you began investigating the drug trade, that in many places, the drug dealers did not really need to fear arrest?

WINN: Absolutely. And we should really understand - I know a lot of people might have it in their heads that the world's largest meth trade is coming out of Mexico. That's not true anymore. And this has really been overlooked. It's happening in Southeast Asia. It's specifically happening in Northern Myanmar, up near the border with China. Drug labs up there are churning out 2 to 6 billion methamphetamine tablets per year. That's more than Starbucks sells cups of coffee worldwide in a year. That's more than McDonald's sells Big Macs. The scale is obscene. And the only way that they're able to do that is because they are not getting cracked down upon by the ruling state.

INSKEEP: Where do all those methamphetamine tablets go?

WINN: A lot of them go into China, and a lot of them go into Thailand, which is a fairly developed economy. And now, a lot of them are flowing into Bangladesh, a majority-Islamic country on the other side of Myanmar. And seizures of these meth tablets have gone up in the last 10 years in Bangladesh by 80,000%. You know, and there's several reasons why it's so popular. You know, in the U.S., we kind of hear about meth as this low-life degenerate party drug. Well, in Southeast Asia, they're taking it not just to party, they're taking it to work.

And an interesting effect of this pill is it makes everything around you interesting, even if you're doing really tedious, repetitive labor. And what type of jobs are people doing in Southeast Asia? Well, they're sewing Nikes in Vietnam or hauling shrimp out of the water in Thailand or stitching clothes in Bangladesh. And these are the jobs that underpin America's middle class because they provide us with cheap stuff. And so there is a relationship with the type of labor that's happening in Southeast Asia and the booming economy and this go, go, go drug.

INSKEEP: Did you spend time with these drug dealers?

WINN: I did. I spent time with drug dealers and drug users as well. And all of the people that I've met - I've talked to a lot of criminals in the last 10 years - I would not describe a single one of them as deranged. They can oftentimes be quite relatable. They are all making rational choices in rather extreme environments.

INSKEEP: What is an example of a person you met who, although they were criminal, seemed to be making rational choices in a demented system, really?

WINN: Up in Myanmar, where they're cranking out all of these meth tablets, the people that actually live up there, most of them are Baptists. They were converted by American missionaries more than a hundred years ago. There are all these Baptists, and they're very angry. And their network of churches has said, we can't take on these drug lords head-on, but what we can do is form vigilante squads to disrupt their market.

And I had heard all of these stories that they were - these churchgoers were roaming around town on motorbikes and grabbing people by the collar, dragging them out of their home and beating them with sticks, making them praise Jesus, putting them in secret prisons on church property.

And so I went up there and I asked if I could tag along and watch them do this. And to my surprise, they said yes. So is that ugly? Yeah, it's quite ugly. I don't think people who use drugs deserve to be treated that way. But is it sending a message to the drug lords? It is, and it is a rational decision. It's not villainous. It's not evil. It makes sense in context.

INSKEEP: I think about the enormous wealth in the United States and how that has sometimes been a problem for neighboring countries. This country, for example, buys an awful lot of illegal drugs, and they get drawn out of Latin American countries, and they have terrible problems with drug gangs. Is something similar happening as China grows so wealthy and you have these Southeast Asian countries that are right south of it?

WINN: Well, yeah. Along those lines, it used to be that heroin sold on the streets of New York City was coming out of Myanmar. That's because the drug lords back in the '60s and '70s, to find a market - people had a bunch of money that's disposable - they had to look towards a country like America. But China is soon to become the world's biggest economy, and you have plenty of people there who can afford things. So the market for illegal things, such as drugs, is increasing as well. So their proximity to China, that means that they don't have to go farther afield to sell their drugs.

Now, the other effect, the geo-political effect that China is bringing. China, as you may have heard, they have this Silk Road redux, a One-Belt, One-Road plan, where they want to stitch together the world with highways and ports and airports and train lines so that commerce can bring things to and from China. It's quite clever. It's a great way to expand their economy.

Well, when you have more infrastructure, when you have more arteries, for a smuggler, this is great. He or she can now move things from A to B much, much more easily. And they can get their drugs from the production site, say in Myanmar, to the city in China, to the city in Thailand or Vietnam, much more easily.

INSKEEP: Patrick Winn is the Asia correspondent for the public radio program "The World" and also author of the new book, "Hello, Shadowlands." Thanks very much.

WINN: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.