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In Myanmar, Methamphetamine, Synthetic Drug Production Soars


Parts of Myanmar are on track to becoming the world's biggest producer of methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs - a trade the United Nations says is worth tens of billions of dollars a year. Michael Sullivan reports from Thailand.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Myanmar's Shan state, which borders both China and Thailand, is the wild wild east. And in many parts of the state, it's well-armed ethnic militias, not Myanmar's military, who call the shots. And in the areas controlled by the militias, the drugmakers are cooking up a storm.

JEREMY DOUGLAS: We've seen organized crime consolidate the business and scale production to something we've never seen in fact anywhere globally.

SULLIVAN: Jeremy Douglas is regional director for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Bangkok.

DOUGLAS: For 10 years, we've been setting records. But over the last five, it's been huge records, all sourced back to the same common point where organized crime has set up operations in safe havens.

SULLIVAN: Safe havens in Myanmar; the drugs then transported into Thailand and beyond - Australia, Japan and South Korea. And despite almost weekly reports of huge seizures of tons of drugs, the price on the street isn't going up. It's going down because there's so much of it, and it's so easy to get to market.

How easy? I'm on a riverbank in Myanmar's southern Shan state. The labs where the drugs are produced - just a few hours up the road. And I'm about to cross the river into northern Thailand.

This is an informal crossing on a small river that separates the two countries in the infamous Golden Triangle. This river is so narrow, I could easily throw a rock across or something bigger. But it's not quite as easy as it sounds because of regular Thai army patrols on this side of the river, even when it's raining. Sergeant Major Jakwong Seubthap.

JAKWONG SEUBTHAP: (Through interpreter) The smuggling gangs who operate during the nighttime, they won't come across during the day because they know we're here.

SULLIVAN: His boss, Colonel Wudtiphat Pruchtakkorn, says even though the army patrols at night, too, they can't be everywhere.

WUDTIPHAT PRUCHTAKKORN: (Through interpreter) The smugglers will just come across where we aren't. Right now, it's very easy for them to operate. So when they cross into Thailand, they share the location to people who come pick up the drugs.

SULLIVAN: But this area is relatively flat and exposed - not ideal for moving big shipments. That happens mostly in the mountains 30 miles to the north where the thick jungle and rugged terrain offer better cover for smugglers. On this day, army lieutenant Chatuphum Kankoi is leading a patrol through a stream on a jungle path high in the mountains on the Thai-Myanmar border.

CHATUPHUM KANKOI: (Through interpreter) We've received information from a source that there's a shipment parked across the border that they're preparing to smuggle along this route.

SULLIVAN: The smugglers usually come across in groups of 10 or more, he says, each man carrying a backpack which can hold up to 200,000 pills or 10 kilograms of crystal meth. Colonel Wudtiphat says the smugglers use local hill tribe members as couriers.

PRUCHTAKKORN: (Speaking Thai).

SULLIVAN: "Nobody knows these mountains like they do," he says. "They're perfect for this job." The smugglers also use high-tech equipment like drones to avoid patrols like this one.

PRUCHTAKKORN: (Speaking Thai).

SULLIVAN: "The only way to stop this trade," he says, "is for the countries in the region to work together. Otherwise the drugs will just keep coming." The UNODC's Jeremy Douglas agrees but says there's so much money to be made, that's unlikely to happen soon.

DOUGLAS: Unless Southeast Asia gets its act together and starts to deal with the conditions that have allowed these organized crime figures to scale and have allowed them to become what they are now, which is just massive Pablo Escobar types, this region will become a global point of production for synthetics.

SULLIVAN: Including, he warns, ketamine and even fentanyl. The crime syndicates have the capacity, he says, and a worldwide distribution network already in place. Michael Sullivan, NPR News, in the Golden Triangle, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.