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The United Nations has alerted the international community about an increasingly diverse synthetic drugs market in Southeast and East Asia, with drug trafficking organizations adopting innovative smuggling routes to distribute vast quantities of methamphetamine and other drugs in the region.

Approximately 151 tonnes of methamphetamine and a record 27.4 tonnes of ketamine were seized in these regions last year, indicating a 167 percent rise in the confiscation of the potent sedative relative to 2021, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

In the latest UNODC report on the state of synthetic drugs in Southeast and East Asia, record seizures of methamphetamine have been observed every year over the last decade, with a return to pre-COVID-19 quantities in 2022. The report suggests that this trend may not necessarily reflect a reduction in production and supply but rather the result of traffickers employing new smuggling routes to evade interception.

Criminal networks in the Golden Triangle – an area spanning the borders of northern Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos – are redirecting substantial quantities of crystal methamphetamine through central Myanmar to the Andaman Sea in a bid to avoid detection, as reported by UNODC. This is in addition to ongoing smuggling operations through northern Thailand and Laos.

Jeremy Douglas, UNODC regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement, “Transnational organized crime groups anticipate, adapt and try to circumvent what governments do, and in 2022, we saw them work around Thai borders in the Golden Triangle more than in the past.”

Douglas further commented on these novel routes through central Myanmar, remarking, “It seems few were looking” in that specific direction. He explained, “Supply within central Myanmar itself significantly expanded, and traffickers quietly started moving product to the coastlines – supply quite literally sailed by on the Andaman Sea.” Control of this territory has enabled drug producers to significantly increase and diversify supply, aiming for market expansion and domination.

Apart from the Golden Triangle and Myanmar’s Shan state, which continue to serve as hubs for synthetic drug production and opium cultivation, criminal organizations are mitigating risk by establishing new production centers in other countries, like Cambodia. “Cambodia has emerged as a key transit and, to some extent, production point for the regional drug trade,” stated Douglas. Additionally, South Asia has become more intertwined with Southeast Asia’s drug supply market, with methamphetamine being trafficked in large volumes from Myanmar into Bangladesh and Northeast India with increasing regularity, as pointed out by the UNODC.


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