Illegal Trades Across National Borders of Mainland Southeast AsiaNov 7th, 2011 | By p-a-chouvy | Category: Articles, Burma / Birmanie, Cambodia / Cambodge, China / Chine, English, India / Inde, Laos, Methamphetamine / Méthamphétamine, Opium, Thailand / Thaïlande, Traffic / Trafic
Illegal Trades Across National Borders of Mainland Southeast Asia
Pierre-Arnaud Chouvyin Le Roux P., Baffie J., Beullier G. (Eds), The Trade in Human Beings for Sex in Southeast Asia, Bangkok, White Lotus Press, 2010, pp. 305-326.
Mainland Southeast Asia, or Indochina—as it has long been known due to its position between India and China—has been marked by decades of modern trafficking in illegal goods. Illegal trades in Mainland Southeast Asia are numerous, extremely diverse, and most likely increasingly complex. Of course, human trafficking and drug trafficking are two of the most prominent illegal trades of the area: human trafficking, in relation to the huge regional prostitution market it feeds—Thailand being worldwide infamous for that reason; and drug trafficking, in relation to opium and heroin produced in bulk in the ill-famed Golden Triangle. Complexity arises from the fact that human trafficking and drug trafficking can be said to be linked in some places and to some extent, whether drug consumption by prostitutes—and by many of their clients—is concerned or whether economic havoc created by excessively brutal and rapid eradication of illicit crops pushes women into prostitution. However, as we will see, complexity is even increased by the fact that many other illegal trades feed off these two major trafficking activities and their existing, and sometimes congruous, networks. Some of these trades may, at some point, contribute to one another; they may also proceed, to some extent, from propitious specific regional dynamics (trafficking in drugs and arms in the context of armed conflicts for example). It is this great diversity and complexity of illegal trading of Mainland Southeast Asia that this paper deals with, focusing on two of its most pervasive phenomenon: drug trafficking and human trafficking.
As might be expected, the peninsular mass of Mainland Southeast Asia is not only one of Asia’s historical major crossroads (hence “Indo-China” and the French Indochine). It is also famous worldwide for harbouring the so-called “Golden Triangle”: one of the two main areas of illicit illegal opium production of Asia and the world. But, insofar as illicit activities are concerned, contemporary Mainland Southeast Asia is known not only as a locus of illicit drugs production but also as a drug trafficking hub and a significant drug consumer market. Heroin and methamphetamine are produced mainly in Burma (now Myanmar) and trafficked heavily throughout the region. Heroin and methamphetamine may be consumed regionally (both in Mainland and in Insular Southeast Asia) or may be exported to China (via the province of Yunnan), to India (via its north-eastern states), or overseas, mostly to Japan, Australia, and North and South America.
However, many other trafficking or smuggling activities have long occurred in and throughout Mainland Southeast Asia while others are still in the process of being progressively developed. One of them, constantly increasing, both regionally and worldwide, is human trafficking: an activity that shares many features with drug trafficking and that, although statistics are unreliable and trustworthy studies are scant, is frequently said to be becoming the world’s largest illegal economy. Yet, this is something that is unverifiable since no one can reasonably provide a precise estimate of the global value of drug trafficking alone. In any case, Southeast Asia also experiences many other major smuggling and trafficking activities: from the international trade in small arms, in nuclear and other radioactive materials, to the international trade in illegally logged timber, wood products, and wildlife. It is worth noting, at once, that some of these traffics can be distinguished from many others because they constitute instances of environmental harm and, or, predatory activities.
However, while seizures conducted throughout the region attest of the existence of various and numerous trafficking activities, the scope, diversity, nature, and mechanisms of the overall phenomenon are far from being satisfactorily studied and understood. In fact, the very complexity of the phenomenon goes beyond its diversity and fast-evolving trends as the extent of the illicit trades undoubtedly exceeds what is known and understood from open or even restricted sources. This is of course largely because of the relative failure of concerned authorities and bodies, both at national and international level, to monitor illicit movements across national borders. But this is also because of a general deficit in academic research on these issues and of the segmentation of most of the research that has been undertaken. The various studies of illicit trades do not provide a regional and systemic understanding of the variety of smuggling and trafficking activities. Even less is known of the synergies that are likely to exist between drug trafficking, human smuggling and trafficking, arms trafficking, wood smuggling, etc.
Still, smuggling and trafficking activities have been drawing increased attention during the last decade or so, as globalization further opened and deregulated national and regional markets. Trafficking is increasingly being presented as a growing threat in the media as well as in governmental and non-governmental reports. Whether smuggling and trafficking activities are clearly on the rise or whether greater attention than before has been paid by national and international authorities, the phenomenon is increasingly being presented as a major multi-fold and worldwide threat. But, while globalization has undoubtedly and increasingly transformed the phenomenon during the last decades, the historical and geographical approach of notions such as borders, frontiers, and routes, shows us that the phenomenon is far from being entirely new. The historical perspective will prove to be extremely important since it can be said that the rise of the nation-state and of is multiple regulations have directly affected various types and ways of trading by rendering them illegal. Thus, to shed some light on what is, by essence, a complex and shadowy world made of illegal and therefore absconded activities one must first understand how “the politics of access and of its denial”  have been deeply affected by the modern modification of frontiers, borders, routes, and regulations. But, firstly, the widely used notions of smuggling and trafficking need to be distinguished from each other and explained, to show that, although both activities amount to illegal trading, smuggling is not trafficking. While this paper will mainly show the diversity of illegal trading in Mainland Southeast Asia, it also intends to show the need of further research, to survey the scope and multi-fold nature of the phenomenon but also to assess the effectiveness of the alleged threats it poses and risks it presents.
Smuggling or trafficking?
One major distinction must be made between the different activities that amount to illegal trading. Illegal trades can be distinguished according to the nature of the goods that are exchanged as well as to the nature of the trade itself. Therefore, distinguishing between smuggling and trafficking enables us to dissociate two major types of illegal trading and to overcome the confusion of two terms that are frequently used alternatively and without distinction. To that effect, one can build on the work of David Bevan, Paul Collier and Jan Gunning  , who separate what they call “black goods” (goods that are illegal) and “black parallel markets” (where legal goods are being traded illegally).
Hereafter, smuggling will describe the importation and, or, exportation of legal goods contrary to the law of at least one country, especially when duties are not paid or when part of a regulation is not observed. As for trafficking, it will describe a trade in goods that are illegal per se: such a trade is therefore illegal by definition. Of course, trading in heroin or in cigarettes differs greatly since heroin is an illegal product and cigarettes are produced and sold legally. But cigarette smuggling is rampant in the world, as in the case of the European Union, due to great variations in duties and ages of legal consumption from country to country. Therefore, to some extent, duties, regulations, and prohibition determine whether goods are more or less smuggled or trafficked, locally, regionally, or globally  .
Usually, such a difference between smuggling and trafficking is only made concerning the trade in human beings. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), human smuggling and human trafficking are similar in some respects, but bear several important differences. The United Nations’ Protocol Against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, defines the “smuggling of migrants” as “the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State Party of which the person is not a national or permanent resident.” The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines “trafficking in persons” as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.” Thus, trafficked victims, according to the UNODC, “have either never consented or, if they initially consented, that consent has been rendered meaningless by the coercive, deceptive or abusive actions of the traffickers.” Another major difference, according to the UNODC, “is that smuggling ends with the arrival of the migrants at their destination, whereas trafficking involves the ongoing exploitation of the victims in some manner to generate illicit profits for the traffickers.”
Thus, according to the United Nations, what distinguishes human smuggling from human trafficking, which are both illegal practices and designate illegal movements of persons, is coercion (or, alternatively, consent). While both smuggled and trafficked people are illegal immigrants, only the first are compliant and complicit, unless, of course, initial consent is nullified by deception and, or, coercion  . The extreme complexity of human smuggling and trafficking is notably determined by the fact that activities fed by illegal migration, and as diverse as prostitution, mining, or even begging, can be either coerced or consented activities: prostitution can be voluntary, while forced labour can be used in mines. Children, who are increasingly being trafficked worldwide, can be abducted to become beggars in a foreign country. Moreover, as is the case in Southeast Asia, countries are frequently source, transit and destination areas for trafficked persons, depending on the segmentation of national and regional markets  .
Other migrants (emigrants or immigrants) can also be said to be illegal or to have been illegally moved from one place to another: refugees (as immigrants) and adopted children (both as emigrant and immigrants) for example. Refugees often cross international borders without proper paperwork but while this kind of illegal immigration is forced, it must of course not be viewed as being criminal: being a refugee, while not always benefiting from a refugee status, frequently exposes people to physical violence and economic exploitation. This is a worldwide phenomenon, even though the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) uses the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention as its major tool to ensure the basic human rights of vulnerable persons, especially to guarantee that refugees will not be returned involuntarily to a country where they face persecution.
It is worth noting that children, being especially vulnerable, are among the first victims of human trafficking. For instance, Xin Ren alleges that “trafficking in children for sale, sexual exploitation, child pornography, and slavery labour has become one of the fastest growing global crime enterprises stretching from the African continent to Europe and from Asia-Pacific to North and South America”. Children are being “sold, abducted, kidnapped, or lured away from their families, bought, exploited, abused or even murdered for profits and illicit services”  . Of course, trafficking in children can occur in various contexts, with many different push and pull factors. For example, illegal adoption is a worldwide phenomenon where local and global push and pull factors can be closely intertwined. Whether for domestic or international markets, “trafficking in children in China is largely for domestic illegal adoption that is driven by a deeply rooted traditional belief that only male heirs can carry on the family name and sonless marriage is a moral shame that disgraces one’s ancestors”  . But since legal adoption may prove extremely difficult in Western countries, because of strict laws aimed at child protection, and because regulation acts as a strong incentive for traffickers, worldwide illegal child adoption has become a highly lucrative market.
Children, but also men and women, can also be abducted, trafficked, and killed for the sake of forced organ removal for transplant purposes, as high prices paid for kidneys, for example, drive an extremely profitable global market. But, since commercial sex workers are in great demand worldwide, it appears that 50% of trafficked persons in the world are children, and that 70% are women  . As stated by Vitit Muntarbhorn, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, “the world community is faced with a rampant and perverse sex market which wreaks havoc on a multitude of children”  .
In May 2005, in a report that has been termed “the most comprehensive analysis ever undertaken by an intergovernmental organization of the facts and underlying causes of contemporary forced labour”, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) revealed that “at least 12,3 million people were trapped in forced labour around the world” and that “children aged less than 18 years bear a heavy burden, comprising 40 to 50 per cent of all forced labour victims”. If we refer to the aforementioned definition provided by the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, exploitation through forced labour is a fundamental dimension of human trafficking. This is something that the ILO report also points to when confirming something that had often been hinted at by less comprehensive studies: that forced labour, human trafficking, and the sex industry, were closely linked. In fact, according to ILO, at least one-fifth of the world’s 12 million bonded labourers are victims of illegal human trafficking - mainly for the sex industry. For instance, the report details that “Forced economic exploitation in such sectors as agriculture, construction, brick-making and informal sweatshop manufacturing is more or less evenly divided between the sexes”. However, “forced commercial sexual exploitation entraps almost entirely women and girls”  .
Smuggling and trafficking are different then, whether the human trade is concerned or not. As we will see, the very dimensions and impact of smuggling and trafficking also differ, mainly depending on the consequences of the illegal trade on source, transit, and destination countries, but also depending on whom the victims are and why they have been illegally moved. However, to better understand smuggling and trafficking activities, one first needs to learn about borders, routes, and their respective logics. Indeed, smuggling and trafficking consist of illegal border crossings made via various routes or lines of travel: trails, paths, roads, etc.
Of routes, frontiers, and borders: the politics of access
A border, through its definition and its delimitation processes, modifies the very nature of any traditional trading that preceded its imposition. In fact, for many merchants, what is suddenly termed smuggling or trafficking is nothing else than traditional trading turned illegal or traditional goods turned illegal: for instance “what is now called smuggling was normal among the Pashtun nomads of eastern Afghanistan for many generations”  . Indeed, according to a Pakistani Afridi from the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan: “You might call what we do smuggling. But to us, it’s just trade”  . Between Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as between Burma and Thailand, imposed boundaries cut through frontier zones and tribal land, changing frontiers into borders and creating de facto jurisdictions: bounded legal territories. But boundaries also affected the very nature or existence of routes: for example, “a road through tribal territory is much more than an avenue of mobility. Here the laws of the state intersect with the laws of the tribe”  .
As stressed in the work of Mahnaz Ispahani, a route is “both a geographical and a political idea, both an end and a means”. Her study of “the politics of access in the borderlands of Asia” draws on the work of the French geographer Jean Gottmann who stated that “one of the major aims of politics is to regulate the conditions of access”. Opposing the route is what Mahnaz Ispahani calls the antiroute: “any natural or artifical constraint on access”, ranging from mountains and deserts to “legal boundaries and tariffs that raise the cost of crossing them”. Antiroutes, as she rightly observes, “may serve the same human purposes as routes”: to regulate the conditions of access. Indeed, “what routes move, and what antiroutes prevent from moving, are people and goods within and across frontiers”  . And routes are consubstantial to borders since, “without land routes, borders cannot be defined and secured”: “Whereas states cannot come into existence without the ability to deny access, they cannot be physically consolidated and politically sustained without the ability to expand access—without the extension of the authority and the legitimacy of the center to the peripheries”  .
As Lord Curzon, Governor General and Viceroy of India (1899-1905), remarked, “the earliest frontiers ‘erected a barrier or created a gap’, that is, restricted movement and access”  . What was true in the borderlands of Southwest Asia, and for its borderlanders, can also be osberved in the frontier area that stretched between Burma and Siam in the 19th century. When the British raised the question of the western frontier of Siam, in the early nineteenth century, no document or treaty identifying and delimitating the boundary could be provided by the local chiefs: “as these were friendly neighbors who shared understanding and trust, one local chief replied, the boundary did not forbid people to trespass or to earn their living in the area.” The borders were even said to be “golden, silver paths, free for traders” and “the tribal people wandering in the mountain forests were subjects of no power”  . Borders were then far from being boundaries: they were frontiers. Lord Curzon depicted this “widely diffused type of ancient Frontier” that was that of “the intermediary or Neutral Zone”: “This may be described as a Frontier of separation in place of contact, a line whose distinguishing feature is that it possesses breadth as well as length”  .
Boundaries were surimposed on transfrontier routes then, since Southeast Asian frontiers have long been areas linking policies rather than separating them  . Colonialism and, later, nationalism, required having boundary lines clearly demarcated: “The major principle behind the Asian frontier system was recognition of the desirability of avoiding direct contact between the administered territories of the various colonial empires concerned”  . In Asia, where the power over individuals and land was traditionally separated, since a subject was bound first and foremost to his lord rather than to a state, modern boundaries have “violently and arbitrarily” divided “ethnic peoples into different nationals”  . Hence, the “external”, or alien, may not really be external while the “internal” can be made alien or “external” as various tribal or refugee people can still experience in Thailand where many tribal people have spent decades waiting for the Thai citizenship and thus have never “belonged” to any state or nation  .
As far as the symbiotic relationship between routes and borders is concerned, Willem van Schendel and Itty Abraham explain how “the act of enforcing a selected flow of people and objects across a border, from border patrols to customs, immediately allows for the possibility of rents to be charged for circumventing these rules and by the same token provides opportunities for smuggling of people and objects across these borders”. Of course, “The weight of enforcement is directly related to the prices that can be charged for getting around it—the risk, uncertainty and demand for these flows “across the border” all go into making the border a site for illicitness, from an economic point of view”. But, it is also important to understand that “making borders also makes illicit the life activities of border communities”  .
Not surprisingly, all kinds of smuggling and trafficking flourish in these old frontier areas that often became buffer zones, as had been and still is the case between Burma and Thailand: the border not only affords some protection for the refugees (from political oppression, economic distress, or even law enforcement) who cross it, it can also help enrich those who do not travel “empty-handed”. Thus, a route and an antiroute can engender one another: a closed border can engender a route to transgress it and the rules and restrictions it implies; the presence of a route can call for an artificial antiroute (checkpoint for example) to monitor or restrict access. Hence, the ever-growing diversity of smuggling and trafficking routes and techniques that arise as a consequence of growing markets and increased controls.
From ancient to modern routes
That both legal and illegal goods can be traded on the same routes or even together in the same cargo is made easier by the marked increase in movements of goods by land, sea, and even air, especially during the last decades. Hiding illicit goods among licit cargo is becoming easier as the global economy unites national and regional markets and as traded goods become more numerous. But modernity draws heavily on history and so-called new routes are often only old routes that have been rediscovered or revived  .
In Mainland Southeast Asia, as Mya Maung stresses, history teaches us that most of the trading routes between Burma and Thailand are old historic roads, some of them being “the ancient trails used by the Burmese kings when they invaded Thailand”  . Mya Maung describes precisely the routes and trading points that allowed black markets to flourish along the Sino-Thai-Indo-Burmese borders: he accounts for “ten different major black market routes between Burma and its three neighbours of China, Thailand, and India”  .
The most active illegal border trade between Burma and Thailand occurred and still occurs in three points: Mae Sai, Mae Sot, and Ranong. Goods traded illegally across the Thai-Burmese border were and are still extremely diverse: according to Mya Maung, it was reported that, in the 1970s, Thailand’s major exports through the border outposts were “pharmaceutical products, aluminum, wadding rope-coated fabric, boiler machinery, synthetic rubber, and man-made fibre,” while in the 1980s, the dominant exports of Thailand were “edible preparations, organic chemicals, iron and steel, manufacturing articles and wadding rope.” The dominant imports of Thailand from Burma have been wood and wood articles, especially teak, and gems”  .
As for the trade between China and Burma, it developed considerably in the 1990s along the famed Burma Road, across Burma’s Shan State toward China’s Yunnan Province. Once again, of course, this road and the majority of the Shan trading posts “were not really new, their existence dating back to the days of the Burmese kings”. In the thirteenth century, “Chinese trading caravans and the invading army of Kublai Khan from China travelled that route”  . As with Thailand, goods illegally traded between Burma and China are manufactured in one direction and natural products in the other. Another major trading route between Burma and China lies in Kachin State and was, until the Kachin Independence Army lost control over the jade mines, “the main route for smuggling famous Burmese jade and gems”  .
These old trading routes of Mainland Southeast Asia, some of them linking China to India, have been plied by merchants even when international boundaries were officially closed. Because clandestine border crossings are illegal, the increased risk of such actions raises the value of both the people and goods that accomplish it: having to deal with closed borders, and as some rarefied goods became more expensive and interesting to trade, merchants turned into smugglers and, or, traffickers. Indeed, as many have acknowledged, “we realize that making borders engenders illicitness, or in Janet Roitman’s words, transgression is productive”  .
The evolution of drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle has forged new transport routes in the region and has brought abandoned routes back into service, such as those previously used by communist guerrillas. Other pathways were never abandoned. Traditional caravaners such as the Haw of Thailand and the Hui (Panthay) of Burma are very active in the regional illicit drug trade, and still use routes today that their forebears used at the end of the nineteenth century  .
Diversity and complexity of smuggling and trafficking activities?
As we have seen, smuggling and trafficking only differ regarding the (il)licitness of the traded goods. Since the trading activity is basically the same—sending goods illegally across a border—, networks and techniques can alternatively or concurrently be used. A great diversity of goods can be legally traded, smuggled, and trafficked along one specific route, either separately or concurrently. Trafficking of various illegal goods almost invariably occurs along one same route, in the same cargo or not. This, of course, is not a new phenomenon; for example, drugs for arms deals have been in existence for a long time across the world. Obviously, successful smuggling and trafficking routes are very much prone to multiple traffics: in Mainland Southeast Asia, human smuggling and trafficking appear to occur on the same routes as drug trafficking. But the same routes are also used for the illegal international trade in small arms, in nuclear and other radioactive materials, and the international trade in illegally logged timber, wood products, and wildlife. The coexistence, both in time and space, of various trafficking activities, concurrent or congruent, is frequent as illegal trading, as an activity, is not always segmented according to the goods that are illegally traded.
But while a certain degree of coexistence of trafficking activities exists, some of them, such as trafficking in nuclear or radiological materials, are at most suspected. To the contrary, others, such as drug trafficking, are much better known. Indeed, “although there is little evidence of involvement of organized criminal groups in nuclear trafficking worldwide, the success with which criminals have smuggled other contraband in South and Southeast Asia—such as narcotic drugs and conventional arms—suggests that nuclear trafficking might be carried out with relative ease, along some of the same routes, by the same criminals, with little hindrance by authorities or permeable border controls”  . In fact, according to Lyudmila Zaitseva and Kevin Hand: “because of the ease with which organized crime can avoid detection of their illicit activities… Networks trafficking in drugs, weapons, and other illicit commodities are well suited for nuclear smuggling. Their experience in avoiding detection, knowledge of safe routes, protection by corrupt authorities, and established infrastructures can be utilized for trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive material”  . As far as drug trafficking is concerned, it is much better understood and documented now that chemical precursors needed to produce heroin are smuggled into production areas via the same routes that are also used to traffic heroin.
Also of greater knowledge is the fact that arms can be exchanged for illicit drugs by using the same networks and corridors (especially when rebel armies are involved in production, and, or trafficking of drugs), as has been the case in Afghanistan, in Burma, and in northeast India. Human beings, such as Chinese women, are also trafficked into Southeast Asia on the same routes used for drug-trafficking to feed a well-established regional prostitution market (Chinese women go south while Burmese heroin goes north). Logically, if drugs can be more or less safely trafficked across certain borders and territories, then other items can also follow the same trails, either hidden into large licit cargo and across legal entry points, or more or less discretely smuggled and trafficked over long and porous borders, through mountain passes, across rivers or even by unauthorized or unchecked helicopter flights (antiques from Burma for example). The exact nature and scope of the overall smuggling and trafficking phenomenon is not known of course but, until further research is conducted on this topic, drug-trafficking routes can be taken as a good example of how diverse and numerous smuggling and trafficking routes can be. It is thus worth examining these routes in Mainland Southeast Asia as they are better known  .
Drug-trafficking routes in Mainland Southeast Asia 
While commercial opium production really started in Mainland Southeast Asia in the 1940s, it only exploded in the 1950s after the Communists overruled the Nationalists in China and cracked down on Chinese domestic production. Opium production quickly shifted to the highlands of the fan-shaped region of northern Indochina, in the hilly and mountainous outskirts of Burma, Laos and Thailand. While this agricultural activity has been carried out in the contiguous border regions of the three countries ever since the nineteenth century, it is now largely confined to the Kachin and Shan states of north-eastern Burma along the Chinese, Laotian, and Thai borders. However, at the turn of the twentieth century, with Afghanistan’s opium production at an all-time high and with Burmese and Laotian productions dwindling, Southeast Asia, both Mainland and Insular, is witnessing a sharp rise in the production of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS). While Burma has long been and still is the source of most of Mainland Southeast Asia’s opium, it has also become, since the early 1990s, the source of hundreds of millions of methamphetamine pills that are trafficked to Thailand, where methamphetamine is called ya baa, but also to Laos, Cambodia, and China.
Thailand was the main trafficking route for heroin in Southeast Asia until the early 1990s. However, a number of factors have contributed to the reorientation of drug trafficking routes within Southeast Asia and to the development of new routes to other parts of the continent. In the 1980s the Thai crackdown on heroin trafficking considerably reduced the use of its well-developed road system by traffickers from Burma. Subsequent patrols of northern Thailand and its Western border by the Third Army and the Border Patrol Police then also disrupted the routes used across the Thai-Burmese border by opium caravans. However, in recent years, in the northwest of the kingdom, the old paths of the former Communist Party of Thailand, as well as outposts of Thai bases of the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), have been widely used by traffickers mainly carrying methamphetamine.
The commercial opening of both southern China and northeast India since the mid-1980s has also favoured the emergence of “new” routes. Heroin trafficking has followed the famed Burma Road since at least 1985, passing through the Burma-China border posts of Muse and Ruili and continuing on through Baoshan, an old Yunnanese knot of nineteenth century opium trafficking, then through Dali and Kunming. Spanning 1200 km, the Chinese border has been increasingly traversed since the Burmese junta legalized cross-border trading in 1988, especially after the 1989 fall of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and the subsequent appearance of the United Wa State Army. A decade later, in May 1998, Chinese authorities estimated that at least 100 kg of heroin transited daily through Bose, in Guangxi province. From Yunnan, Burmese heroin can then reach Eastern China and Hong Kong, to be eventually exported overseas to Australia and North America. However, some heroin is also bound for the Southeast Asian market, entering Laos through its Luang Namtha, Bokeo, and Phongsaly provinces.
China is prone to drug trafficking from Burma since its southern neighbour has an important Chinese population that consists of, among others, Hui caravan traders, former KMT as well as CPB members, and local Kokang Chinese, all of whom are more or less involved in illicit cross-border activities and drug trafficking. The powerful attraction of both Hong Kong and Taiwan as major international heroin trafficking nodes also adds to the appeal of the Chinese route.
While China is certainly the main transhipment destination for heroin from Burma, it is not the only one, as northeast India, which shares a 1463 km border with Burma, also draws some of the traffic. From poppy fields in northeastern Burma, opium as well as heroin are transported by road to the northeastern Indian states of Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. Heroin trafficking across the India-Burma border was first noticed in the early 1990s and six heroin laboratories were discovered in western Burma in 1992.
In the late 1990s, the diversification of drug trafficking routes increased together with the diversification of illicit drug production. The explosion of methamphetamine production in Burma has led to a resurgence in the use of the Thai route, since Thailand is by far the first consumer market of ya baa (mad pills) in the region. Ya baa traffickers differ from others in that they are more numerous and carry small quantities of pills across the Thai-Burmese border. They form what Thai authorities have referred to as an “ant army”, crisscrossing the border along countless hill paths and using small tribal villages as staging posts. The strong crackdown led by the Thai army and the police in the northernmost part of the country has recently diverted the flows of methamphetamine, pushing traffickers to use new itineraries.
Ya baa, but also heroin, now increasingly enters Thailand from Laos through border towns such as Chiang Khong, Nan, Loei, Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahaern and Ubon Ratchathani. Laotian roads are frequently used for transporting illicit drugs bound for Thailand, even though drug trafficking aboard speedboats along the Mekong River, which demarcates the international border between the two countries, seems to be the first choice. Many villages, such as Ban Ahi, in Laos—50 km north of Loei—from where methamphetamine, locally grown cannabis and weapons enter Thailand, straddle the border. While in Laos local opium production is mostly for national consumption, the increasing international trafficking of opiates and ATS through the country is probably a direct consequence of tougher repressive policies in Thailand. Laos shares a 235 km border with Burma, while its borders with Thailand, China, and Vietnam are 1754 km, 423 km and 2130 km respectively. The position of Laos within the region thus facilitates the transit of illicit drugs from Burma to the other three countries.
Further south along the Thai border and lower on the Mekong, Cambodia is also increasingly used as a staging point for trafficking methamphetamine via Trat and Chanthaburi into Thailand. East of Laos and Cambodia, Vietnam has similarly been turned into a drug trafficking route, either from or to China  .
Overseas trafficking is frequently organised from Vietnamese seaports such as Hoi Anh, Danang, Vinh and Haiphong or from the Cambodian Koh Kong province or Pochentong airport (Phnom Penh). The port cities of Koh Kong and Kompong have also emerged as major drug transit and re-exporting centres  . Vietnam is also a destination for Burmese heroin, notably, via China, the Hekou-Lao Cai border crossing being one of the most frequently used. Even though drug trafficking routes in Southeast Asia are increasing, traffickers keep diversifying their itineraries, some of them sometimes taking national authorities by surprise.
After the Second World War, Thailand was first avoided by drug traffickers coming from Burma because its police and army, as well as its leaders, were notoriously corrupt and cost them too much in bribes. Laos was thus originally used to bypass such added taxes. Now, however, it is the tough anti-drug policy of Thai authorities that is driving traffickers towards alternative routes such as Laos and Cambodia. In 1999, for example, Thai authorities increased the number of border checkpoints along its Laotian and Cambodian borders from 100 to 269, again encouraging the traffickers to resort to different routes.
In recent years, routes through southern Thailand have been on the agenda of both traffickers and anti-drug forces, particularly since March 2000, when several million methamphetamine pills were seized in Prachuap Khirikhan, having been trafficked from Kawthaung, or Victoria Point, in Burma, to Ranong, Thailand. In January 2001, another seizure confirmed this reorientation of drug trafficking through southern Burma and Thailand. Close to eight million pills and 116 kg of heroin were seized aboard Thai fishing boats west of Ko Surin (islands), pointing to the Andaman Sea as a major drug route. Eighty per cent of the drugs entering Thailand come across the northern part of the Thai-Burmese border, but the strengthening of Thai anti-drug actions has clearly fostered a wide diversification of drug trafficking routes as well as a diminution of the quantity of drugs being transported at any one time.
Currently, illicit drug circuits and cargo loads are multiplying so rapidly that traffickers now even make regular use of regional airports in Thailand. They enlist a multitude of frontier-runners known as “mules” by customs and police authorities the world over. Collectively, the runners in Thailand, made up largely of cross-border minorities, are frequently referred to as an ‘army of ants’. The growth in both transit routes and frontier-runners, each runner carrying anywhere between 30,000 to 50,000 methamphetamine pills, has made it more difficult for authorities to intercept trafficked drugs. Consequently, there has been a drop in the quantities of drug seized.
The number and diversity of drug trafficking routes also enable other types of smuggling and, or, trafficking activities, sometimes by notorious drug traffickers themselves. For example, insofar as the Thailand-Burma border is concerned, trafficking in counterfeit goods has recently increased. Based near Thailand’s northern border with Burma, some key drug traffickers such as Wei Hsueh Kang have diversified their activities into producing and trafficking pirated pornographic Video Compact Discs (VCDs). This proves interesting since it brings another category of traffickers to the fore: legal touristic migrations between Tachileck, in Burma, to Mae Sai, in Thailand, lead to an upsurge of trafficking in pirated VCDs. Considering that pirated copies of Hollywood, Thai, Chinese and Taiwanese films can be found everywhere in Tachileck and that “about 1000 tourists cross the border from Thailand to Tachileck every day, rising to 6000 a day during a holiday”, Thai authorities estimate that about 80% of these tourists buy pirated VCDs in Burma and bring them back in Thailand  . Also widely available at Tachileck markets are Chinese-made sex stimulants that are not approved by Thailand’s Food and Drug Administration and end up being seized by customs officials from returning tourists. As far as counterfeit goods are concerned, a new trend is emerging in Southeast Asia, where drug resistant malaria is widespread and is “fuelling a roaring trade in counterfeit drugs, including the new and effective Artemisinin-based Combination Therapy (ACT) drugs”: “Even the Artemisinin compounds—touted as the solution to drug resistance—are being faked in Southeast Asia. The counterfeiters follow where people are buying these drugs, counterfeit the drug and put it in the market”  . This is a clear and recent example of how drug trafficking routes can be used for other trafficking activities. In this case, a famous drug trafficker diversifies its production and trafficking activities thanks to the networks and routes he controls. But such routes are being widely used by other smugglers and traffickers, either for the same trades or for different ones.
The scope of trafficking in Mainland Southeast Asia
Various examples of smuggling and trafficking activities show that these drug trafficking routes are conducive to multiple trafficking. Various factors can explain such a phenomenon. For example, from a regional perspective, movements of refugees and illegal immigrants employed in Thailand further add to the confusion and increase the illicit flow of merchandise, including drugs, small arms, wood, precious stones, consumer goods, and livestock.
If various products meant for the Burmese black market illegally cross the Chinese, Laotian and Thai borders, other types of trade also take place along these same routes. Notable here is the trafficking in human beings, particularly women, whose numbers swell the enormous regional prostitution market. Of course, such traffic creates serious social, economic and health problems for all affected countries in the region. Today, 25 to 35 per cent of the total population of female prostitutes in northern Thailand are said to be of Burmese origin  . The spread of HIV/AIDS and various types of hepatitis in this population has assumed particularly alarming proportions.
To some extent, the refugee situation in Thailand also contributes to the transit of illicit drugs and other illegal trades. In November 1991, about 55,000 Burmese people were living as refugees in 27 Thai camps along the Burmese frontier. It was estimated that 300,000 to 500,000 Burmese were residing illegally throughout Thailand at this time. In 1998, seven years later, 80,000 to 100,000 refugees were counted in the Thai camps, with about 60,000 Karen in the Tak region, 20,000 Shan around Mae Hong Son, and more than 10,000 Mon in the province of Ratchaburi.
The armed violence and numerous human rights violations of the Rangoon junta and its army in Shan State have increased an already constant inflow of Burmese refugees into Thailand. During the last few years, more than 300 000 Shan emigrated to flee the population displacement imposed by the junta and, more recently, the United Wa State Army. By 1998, it was estimated than approximately one million Burmese were residing and working illegally in Thailand. Possibly a full third of them have been deported since then  , while, in 2001 alone, approximately 120,000 new refugees were still expected to enter Thailand from Burma  .
Mainland Southeast Asia has experienced decades of wars and conflicts, from the Indochina wars, including the Vietnam War, to the internal conflicts in Burma and Cambodia. These conflicts have not only thrown waves of refugees on the roads and across international borders, they have also spurred an international and regional trade in small arms that is still very active and regionally integrated. For instance, it has been estimated that there are “up to 900,000 unregistered small arms in Cambodia”. Many demobilized Cambodian soldiers have kept their weapons and the country lacks both an effective registration system and safe storage facilities for legal weapons belonging to government forces: “This results in a vicious circle in which legal weapons are often sold by poorly paid soldiers, while illegal weapons are confiscated and again become legal weapons”. And, in 2002 and “in spite of the government’s crackdown on illegal arms, traders at Teuk Thla market in Phnom Penh still take orders for weapons”. Cambodia has emerged as a regional market for small arms: “Myanmar rebel groups, secessionists from Sri Lanka and supporters of Acehnese independence movements in Indonesia are among those groups that have bought weapons from Cambodia’s well-established black market”  .
Arms shipments from Cambodia can reach all the way to India, as has allegedly been the case in the late 1990s when arms consignments comprising “AK series rifles, mortars, landmines, Sten guns and high-powered explosives”, meant for various insurgent groups in Northeastern India, were said to be coming from Bangladesh, where illicit drugs from Burma and arms from Cambodia cross their paths: “The drug shipments head towards Jaffna and from there to various destinations in West Asia for entry into the European and US markets. According to intelligence sources, Ranong Island off the coast of Thailand is the staging point for arms shipments that originate from Cambodia and take the sea route through the Andaman Sea to the major receiving point at Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh’s southernmost tip”. While this route has been used by arms dealers and their end-users for a number of years, the alleged “drug trafficking by the LTTE has added a new dimension”  . This maritime route is also clearly used for trafficking drugs as the January 2001 seizure of heroin and methamphetamine off Ko Surin (Thailand) has shown: via the Irrawaddy River Burmese heroin reaches the Andaman Sea where fishing boats take it to Ko Surin and unload it south of Ranong. Ranong is thus not only one of the main trading points for the Burmese black market. It is also a drug trafficking node and a well-known passage for human smuggling, as testified by its rampant prostitution.
But India’s eastern borders with Bangladesh and Burma have also “witnessed smuggling incidents—some of which involved nuclear material of indigenous South and Southeast Asian origin—which since the late 1990s have led authorities to suspect the operation of organized nuclear smuggling rings in the India-Bangladesh border area”  . Indeed, “in Southeast Asia, cesium-137, a radioactive material that could fuel a potent Radiological Dispersal Device, was smuggled into Bangkok, Thailand, in 2003. The material was reported to have entered Thailand across the Laotian border, but was said to have been of Russian origin. In 2001, equipment stolen from a public works facility in Bangkok contained radioactive material, including cesium-137. In addition, just over a decade ago, in 1993, police in Hanoi, Vietnam, arrested a Vietnamese man for smuggling 10 kg of uranium from his former workplace in the former Soviet Union”  .
Southeast Asian borders are also known for other thriving smuggling and trafficking activities: Burmese teak (Tectona grandis), for example, is being increasingly logged and exported to Thailand, some it smuggled, since Thailand forbid its own teak to be cut in 1989. Farther north, on the Chinese-Burmese border, it is the Wa hills that are being deforested for the economic benefit of China and in the context of a hastened opium suppression programme  . Much has been said on Burma’s balance of payments and the fact that it shows hundreds of millions of dollars in unexplained foreign financial inflows. The most widely available explanation was that heroin exports were the largest contributor to the country’s economy. However, illegal timber exports are likely to have contributed tens of millions of dollars to these financial inflows. “As well as deliberately concealed exports, another explanation for the export-import discrepancies… is that substantial timber exports are taking place from territories outside the control of the Forest Department. Both explanations are probably valid. Burma’s biggest customers (China, India, and Thailand) are not only its neighbours, thus facilitating unofficial cross-border trade, but also report the greatest differences between their imports and Burma’s declared exports. Thailand reported more than four times Burma’s declared exports in 1994 and double the declared exports in 1995; India did not provide any statistics for 1994, but in 1995, its declared imports were 30 times greater than Burma’s declared exports. Burma reported no exports to China in 1995, but China declared imports of more than 500,000 m3”  .
According to the Chiang Mai based Lahu National Development Organisation, “There is hardly any teak forest remaining [in Eastern Shan state], but other kinds of hardwood, pinewood and fragrant sandalwood are still in great demand”. The LNDO also reports that “Most of the ceasefire groups and militia are involved in logging in their areas, some in conjunction with wealthy businessmen from the cities” and that “The UWSA’s Hong Pang company is currently the main organisation in eastern Shan State carrying out logging. They have their own logging equipment, and also sub-contract other local or foreign (Thai or Chinese) loggers with equipment to carry out the logging”  . More of Burma’s natural resources are being plundered in the country’s peripheries as numerous non-timber forest products are also being removed from Burma’s luxurious forests. The LNDO also mentions that “There is a huge demand from China for wildlife and forest products, mainly for medicinal purposes. These include tortoises, bears’ gall bladders, snakes, otter skins, pangolin scales and wild orchids. Despite the fact that many of these species are endangered and trade in them is prohibited in Burma, there exists a thriving black market network to locate and export the various items. The main dealers are Chinese businesspeople living in towns such as Tachileck and Kengtung. They send out representatives to villages, where they place orders for certain products with local agents. Villagers are told that if they can find the products, they will receive a particular amount of money, for example up to 20,000 kyat (approx US$20) per 10 tical (approx 160 g) of bear’s gall bladder or 150,000 kyat (approx US$140) per viss (1,6 kg) for first class orchids  . The wildlife of Mainland Southeast Asia had already considerably suffered from the wide-scale hunting, poaching, and traffic of numerous species, reorienting the plunder and trade toward countries that have been somehow spared until recently. Hence, “as neighbouring countries have exhausted their own valuable natural resources, the price for Cambodia’s last populations of tigers, elephants, and bears has soared to levels undreamed of even a decade ago”. But Cambodia is not the only country concerned: “as demand for wild animals has grown in far off places, new supply routes have opened up in Asia”, most notably in Burma, and “the supply routes are growing bigger and more sophisticated by the day”  . As suggested by the above-mentioned examples, smuggling and trafficking activities are widespread and extremely diverse in Southeast Asia.
Trafficking synergies or isolated trends?
There is a distinction that goes beyond that made between smuggling and trafficking. Indeed, smuggling and trafficking vie not only on newly generated resources such as illicit drugs but also and even more on non-renewable natural resources: most of smuggling and trafficking activities thrive on what can be designated as predatory economies and activities, that is, most notably, plundering of natural resources. What is rarely acknowledged is that such trading can prove much more detrimental to the environment and to human societies than the production of and trafficking in illicit drugs (the environmental costs of which should not be ignored either) or counterfeit items (even though counterfeit mechanical parts and medical drugs present obvious dangers). But since smuggling and trafficking are of concern for source, transit, and destinations countries, one has to dissociate the impacts and consequences of these trades according to their very nature and extent. For instance, human trafficking can have extremely detrimental social and health consequences in source as well as in destination countries. As for the trade in exotic timber and rare animal species, it can create environmental havoc in source countries (forest depletion but also landslides, vulnerability to tidal waves, etc.) but is unlikely to have dramatic consequences in destinations countries, at least until a probable global impact is felt in these countries.
Moreover, some law enforcement activities can have rather perverse and “unintended” consequences, fuelling other illicit activities than the targeted one as producers and, or, smugglers and traffickers resort to alternative economic activities to make up for lost revenues. For example, the “war on drugs” can clearly be counter-productive in terms of drug production  , “resulting in perverse incentives for farmers to grow more drugs (e.g., in Colombia), displacement of production to more remote areas, and fuelling of violence and insecurity (Peru, Bolivia, Colombia), which in several cases forced the eradication policy to be reversed and led to adverse political outcomes”  . Of course, such a phenomenon happens in Asia too, where the failure to provide economic alternatives to opium production before eradicating poppy crops can also have a devastating impact on the impoverished rural people who depend on the illicit opium economy for their livelihood  , and thus foster other drug trafficking activities (heroin in lieu of opium, methamphetamine in lieu of opium and, or heroin) alternative activities such as human trafficking, widespread logging, trafficking in rare species, etc.
Other such synergies can be suspected and still need to be properly documented and understood. For example, various trades and movements can be linked together: the sex trade can, to some extent, be nurtured by ill-designed and ill-implemented anti-drug policies, thus fuelling and AIDS pandemic that, in Asia, grows mostly through intravenous drug use. The AIDS pandemic can also be suspected of spurring child prostitution as it is likely that the worldwide explosion of child prostitution that happened after 1985 has been mainly driven by the fear of AIDS (but also by a growing worldwide tourism industry that made sex tourism more affordable). Moreover, when eradication of illicit crops such as opium is favoured against the development of alternative livelihoods, “unintended” consequences such as accelerated deforestation and other predatory activities are very much likely to occur.
As for arms smuggling and trafficking, mostly of ordinary conventional weapons, it is responsible for the vast majority of casualties in the world’s conflicts and thus for the death, wounding and uprooting of a countless number of people each year  . In Southeast Asia, as it is now well known, decades of armed conflicts (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma) have spurred the production and traffic of opium, heroin and, more recently, methamphetamine. But they have also thrown hundreds of thousands of refugees on the roads and across the national borders of the region, creating favourable conditions for the growth of black markets, regional sex trade, and of drug trafficking and consumption.
Of course, demand from buyers around the world plays a significant role by fuelling these trades. But poverty, underdevelopment, and also economic disruptions, political crisis, armed conflicts, and natural catastrophes create local, national and regional contexts and synergies that can push people into smuggling and trafficking. In Southeast Asia, as in the rest of the world, the smuggling and trafficking phenomenon is extremely diverse and complex. Complex yet unsatisfactorily accounted for, since synergies are undoubtedly at work between different smuggling and trafficking activities. The case of Mainland Southeast Asia shows a complex reality where every smuggler or trafficker may not be a versatile and diversified merchant, but where many illicit trades coexist and can compete with and, or, benefit from each other, but to an extent that will not be satisfactorily known and understood until further research is conducted through specific case studies. . The author is a Research Fellow at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). He studies the geopolitics of illicit drugs and illegal trades in Asia. His last book: Opium. Uncovering the Politics of the Poppy, was released in September 2009 by I.B. Tauris (London). For more information on his work and other publications, see www.geopium.org.  Mahnaz Z. Ispahani, Roads and Rivals : the Politics of Access in the Borderlands of Asia, London, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd Publishers, 1989  . David Bevan, Paul Collier, Jan Gunning, Black Markets and Black Goods, Oxford University Institute of Economics and Statistics, mimeogr., December 1998.  . See, for further developments regarding illicitness in international trade: Marie-Angèle Hermitte, L’illicite dans le commerce international des marchandises, in Philipe Kahn et Catherine Kessedjian, L’illicite dans le commerce international, Dijon, University of Burgondy-CNES (“Travaux du Centre de recherche sur le droit des marchés et des investissements internationaux”, 16), 1998 : 109-175.  . Brian Iselin and Melanie Adams, Distinguishing between Human Trafficking and People Smuggling, UNODC, Bangkok, 10 April 2003.  . US Department of State, Traffiking in Persons Report, 2004: http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2004/  . Xin Ren, Trafficking in Children: China and Asian Perspective, California State University, Sacramento, Conference on Making Children’s Rights Work: National & International Perspectives, International Bureau for Children’s Rights, Montreal, November 20, 2004: 1.  . Xin Ren, Trafficking in Children: China and Asian Perspective: 2.  . Xin Ren, Trafficking in Children: China and Asian Perspective: 5.  . Vitit Muntarbhorn, Tackling the demand factor for child sex, Bangkok Post, 30 April 2005.  . International Labour Organisation, A global alliance against forced labour, Global Report under the Follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work 2005, International Labour Office, Geneva, May 2005.  . Robert L. Canfield, Ethnic, Regional, and Sectarian Alignments in Afghanistan, in Ali. Banuazizi and Myron Weiner (Eds), The State, Religion, and Ethnic Politics. Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, 1986 : 97.  . M.E. Edwards, J.B. Baumann, 1977, “An Eye for an eye: Pakistan’s Wild Frontier”, National Geographic, January 1977 : 122.  . Mahnaz Z. Ispahani, Roads and Rivals : the Politics of Access in the Borderlands of Asia, London, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd Publishers, 1989 :141. Regarding borders and trafficking routes in Asia, see also: Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, Les Territoires de l’opium, Paris, Olizane, 2002.  . Mahnaz Z. Ispahani, Roads and Rivals : the Politics of Access in the Borderlands of Asia, London, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd Publishers, 1989 :2-3.  . Mahnaz Z. Ispahani, Roads and Rivals : the Politics of Access in the Borderlands of Asia, London, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd Publishers, 1989 :7.  . Mahnaz Z. Ispahani, Roads and Rivals : the Politics of Access in the Borderlands of Asia, London, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd Publishers, 1989 :3.  . Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped. A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, Bangkok, Silkworm Books, 1994: 73.  . Text of the 1907 Romanes Lecture on the subject of Frontiers by Lord Curzon of Kedleston, Viceroy of India (1898-1905) and British Foreign Secretary 1919-24): Website of The International Boundaries Research Unit (http://www-ibru.dur.ac.uk/docs/curzon1.html).  . 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