By Lalitha Kunaratnam

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--A single mother of nine children was sentenced on Oct. 15 at the Tawau High Court in Sabah, Malaysia. She was caught with 113.9 grams of methamphetamine (otherwise called meth) in January 2018.

Death sentences for drug-related crimes are not uncommon in Southeast Asia.  A man in Singapore was recently given the death penalty after he was found with 2 pounds of cannabis.

In Malaysia, anyone caught with more than 50 grams of meth is presumed to be trafficking the drug unless evidence is provided to prove otherwise, under the country's Dangerous Drugs Act.

The rising tide

Just days ago, a drug trafficking syndicate known as "Abang 888" was crippled in Malaysia, with the arrest of an Indonesian man and the seizure of 40 kilogrammes of drugs, believed to be meth, worth RM1.44 million (US 340,000).

According to the Malacca police chief, the syndicate was believed to be involved in cross-border and cross-district drug smuggling activities, using Malacca as a transit point before smuggling the drugs out of the country by sea.

On March 15, the Royal Malaysian Customs Department seized 94.8 million Captagon pills which contain amphetamine worth RM5.2 billion from containers at Port Klang, making it the largest drug haul in the country's history.

Meanwhile, in September, the Customs seized RM14.4 million worth of meth at the KL International Airport (KLIA) cargo complex, two weeks after it foiled an attempt to smuggle RM6.6 million worth of the same drug out of the airport.

Although the Customs and other law enforcement agencies are working hard to stem the tide of drugs crossing Malaysian borders, drug trafficking operations continue to escalate.

Illegal drug producers

According to a 2019 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), increasing amounts of illicit synthetic drugs are being produced in the Southeast Asia, in part as a result of illegal producers based in China forced to migrate production to Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia, as to avoid tougher regulations and enforcement.

Whilst the production of plant-based drugs such as heroin requires certain climatic conditions to grow, the manufacture of illicit synthetic drugs, including meth, is not geographically constrained. 

The production of synthetic drugs, requiring the use of precursor chemicals, are increasingly being made in the Southeast Asia region as this region is globally known for chemical and pharmaceutical production.

As of late, most of Asia's meth comes from "Golden Triangle" border areas between Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and south-west China, which are pumping unprecedented quantities of meth, in its more potent crystallised form, into global markets.

In October, Laotian police carried out Asia's biggest-ever single seizure of illegal drugs, finding more than 55 million meth pills in the back of a beer truck in Laos' northern province of Bokeo, which borders Thailand and Myanmar.

Regional and inter-regional trafficking

Coinciding with the surge in the production of meth in the Southeast Asia region, Malaysia has become an important hub for regional and inter-regional drug trafficking. Malaysia’s strategic location at the heart of Southeast Asia’s market has opened commercial opportunities for displaced drug syndicates looking to expand their regional and global supply chain and operations.

Just last week, a woman was arrested in Thailand after 210 kilogrammes of crystal meth were found in packages concealed in a shipment of sofas being sent to Malaysia. During questioning, the woman allegedly admitted she was paid to smuggle the contraband to Malaysia.

As drug syndicates devise ever-more creative ways of disguising illegal drugs for transport, law enforcement faces an uphill battle in detecting such concealed substances.

Major trends

With regards to Malaysia, the authors of the UNODC’s 2021 report on Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia have noted, amongst others, the following:

a) Overall seizure amounts of meth has increased in 2020, regardless of mobility restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic and enforcement at international entry points; and

b) The number of meth manufacturing facilities dismantled in the country continues to decline despite increase in seizures. This clearly indicates that meth is increasingly being sourced from outside the country.

Transnational threat

Transnational Organised Crime (TOC) groups have clearly demonstrated a great ability to adapt to change and expand their operations, posing an increasing transnational threat. Exploiting areas with weak governance and border control, these groups are using their financial muscle to further corrupt and undermine the rule of law.

Given the estimated US 60 billion being made each year in Asia’s drug trade, regional experts say the recent arrests of two key drug figures are seen as unlikely to dent the long-term flow of drugs.

In January, the Dutch police arrested Tse Chi Lop, allegedly the leader of the Asian drug syndicate known as The Company or Sam Gor (Brother No. 3 in Cantonese). Then in February, it was announced that Lee Chung Chak, suspected of being a second leader of the syndicate, had been arrested.

The syndicate’s cash cow is meth, produced in laboratories in the Golden Triangle, straddling Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and China, for the Australian, Japanese and Taiwanese markets. It is alleged to have made tens of billions of dollars each year off drugs in the region.

Back in Malaysia, the police had identified several drug lords who have been living in luxury, using their legitimate businesses as fronts for their illegal activities. The legitimate businesses, including hotels, shipping and logistics firms, are apparently being used as fronts for their distribution of drugs locally and abroad.

Intelligence gathered so far show that the syndicates smuggle drugs to Indonesia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Indonesia using cargo planes and ships.

Some well-known examples in Malaysia include ex-Macau crime boss Wan Kuok-koi, also known as Broken Tooth. Wan, whose business interests Cambodia, Palau and Myanmar, is also the subject of an Interpol Red Notice filed in February by Malaysian police. 
They are seeking his arrest for commercial crime related to his time as non-executive chairman of Inix Technologies Holdings Berhad from June to December last year. It is reported by Reuters that Wan is blacklisted by the US due to his involvement in drug trafficking, illegal gambling, racketeering, and human trafficking.

Emerging concerns

By 2030, developing countries are projected to undergo significant increases in urban and younger population – both profiles linked to increased drug use, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has warned.

Whilst authorities have undeniably been making efforts to carry out raids, seizures and closures of drug laboratories, the currently reactive approach presents solutions that form barely a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the problem, doing little to prevent illicit drug trafficking.

Experts say that the governments in Southeast Asia couldn't win a "battle of materiel" against the immense profits of the drug trade. What is truly needed is a "creative approach" as well as more cross-border cooperation.

*Lalitha Kunaratnam is an independent researcher and anti-corruption activist. She is writing in her own capacity, and the views expressed are not necessarily those of INS.*