Intrepid visitors to Yangon should not miss the military’s bizarre Drug Elimination Museum.
Its gory mannequins depict the dangers of drug abuse and the military’s efforts to tackle the issue.
One interactive display includes a claw-like hand that shoots towards the unsuspecting visitor.
However, the giant building – which sees almost no visitors – gives a deeply misleading impression of the efforts made by the Burmese military to tackle the lucrative trade.
Much of the generals’ ostentatious wealth has derived from drugs profits and Myanmar’s huge production hubs are meeting demand across the rest of Asean and in Australia.
Laos is the latest country to become immersed in the narcotics trade.
A prolonged Thai military operation on the northern Thai border with Myanmar has forced manufacturers to look for an alternative route through Laos and across the Mekong River.
Laotian drug gangs are using drones, scouts and villagers to transport record amounts of methamphetamine into Thailand.
As highly addictive meth poisons the bodies of the region’s young, it is time that Asean’s government admit that the current policies of criminalisation have failed.
No solution to the issue will be found until the military-controlled government in Myanmar tackles the narco-states within its porous borders.
Burmese meth, which can be smoked, snorted or injected, is being seized by the Thai authorities in billion-dollar batches. It is debilitating large sections of the region’s working-age population while generating huge profits for the gangs that run the trade.
Tonnes of crystal meth or “ice” cross Asean’s borders along with billions of caffeine-laced yaba (meaning “crazy”) pills, which are sold to partygoers and manual workers who want to beat drowsiness.
Yesterday (Thursday) soldiers and police in the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai discovered 2.2 million meth pills and 11kg of ice in a pickup truck that was abandoned after a chase.
The gangs have started using drones to search the Mekong from the Laotian side to look for Thai personnel, said Phoomsak Kampoo, a district chief in Nakhon Phanom, one of Thailand’s poorest provinces.
On May 31, Thai personnel on the Mekong seized 133kg of ice in neighbouring Mukdahan province.
Laotian fishermen reportedly drift close to the Thai side of the Mekong and dump parcels of yaba pills on the Thai bank. Bigger shipments are becoming more frequent, responding to increasing demand.
Ice has been described as the most common and damaging illegal drug.
And the Golden Triangle is thought to be the world’s biggest meth production hub, although it lacks the brutal violence associated with the Latin American trade.
Nearly 3 tonnes of ice and 5 million yaba pills were seized in Thailand between May 31 and June 4.
The problem is spreading far beyond Thailand.
Last week the Australian border authorities announced a 1.6-tonne seizure of ice, worth an estimated US$840 million. It was stored in Chinese tea boxes in a shipment of Thai speakers along with about 37kg of heroin in vacuum-sealed bags.
The Australian Crime Commission said crystal meth posed the highest risk to communities of any illegal substance.
All governments admit that the vast seizures represent the tip of the iceberg as the vast majority of drugs evade detection.
A Thai source estimated that only 10 per cent of shipments needed to get through for the gangs to make a profit.
While the authorities fail to tackle the smugglers, and the jails fill with low-level couriers and street dealers, availability continues to grow.
The Thai street price for a yaba pill has dropped in some areas to Bt30 – the price of an ice cream – indicating the ineffectiveness of efforts to block the trade and the impact of falling meth manufacturing costs.
The price of 1kg of ice is estimated at around US$11,000 in Bangkok and US$4,800 in Laos. Increasing numbers of seizures on the communist state’s borders with Vietnam and Cambodia are also being reported.
In Thailand, cannabis seized from the streets is being tested for purity to work out if it is clean enough to be used in medical oil.
So dealers are in Thai jails for selling a product that is then tested as a potential medicine to cure the sick. These ridiculous double standards highlight the need for an urgent legalisation of cannabis in Thailand.
A Thai policy of legalisation and regulation could ensure that cannabis is available in less toxic forms. The vast majority of seized marijuana has been rejected by the Thai authorities because it is heavily contaminated with metals like cadmium and by pesticides, which are used to prevent the herb from being eaten by tropical bugs.
Legalised cannabis would mark a return to a long Thai tradition, that was only ended with criminalisation in the 1960s.
Regulated supply could remove the need to use noxious pesticides and generate huge tax revenues for the Thai economy. The model is already being rolled out across the US.
While Thailand is edging towards legalisation of cannabis, methamphetamines prevent a greater challenge for Asean’s governments. Coordinated action is needed across borders and that must start in Myanmar if the trade is going to be tackled.
But while the authorities are so clearly failing to prevent meth from crossing borders, governments should begin to consider legalising the drug and ensuring it is available in a less poisonous form.
After 50 years of a war on drugs, governments around the world should admit that they have comprehensively lost.
A jailed mannequin in Yangon’s Drug Elimination Museum. Picture credit: Asean Economist