ASEAN Narcos: Goodbye, Golden Triangle?
Jul 18, 2020

Six Asian countries come together to lead Southeast Asia’s biggest drug bust.

This year, several Southeast Asian countries got all fired up in celebration of the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on June 26.


In Yangon, Myanmar, thick clouds of dark smoke filled the air as authorities burned a massive pile of confiscated illegal drugs worth $144 million. Earlier in May, local drug enforcement officers did the same with a whopping 41.5 tonnes of precursor chemicals and one ton of opium.

In Ayutthaya, Thailand, government authorities sanctioned the mass burning of over $2 billion worth of seized illegal drugs. In Cambodia, around 500 kilogrammes of confiscated drugs were also burned to oblivion.

These mass incinerations are no coincidence. All three countries involved are part of Operation Golden Triangle 1511, a joint initiative between China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand that aims at eradicating illegal drug production in the notorious Golden Triangle region.

So far, efforts have been moderately successful, which is great in many respects. We are talking about one of the biggest illegal drug operations in the world here. And if the Netflix TV show Narcos is any indication, this drug trade is without doubt highly profitable and terribly bloody as well.

How well are the six nations doing in fighting the drug trade? Is it finally time to say goodbye to the Golden Triangle?

What is the Golden Triangle?

Geographically, the Golden Triangle is that area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet along Mekong River and its tributary Ruak River, forming a clean triangular shape.

It is also one of the largest opium producing areas in the world. In fact, until 2013, the majority of the world’s heroin supply came from the Golden Triangle. Meanwhile, after Afghanistan surpassed it at around the turn of the millennium, the Southeast Asian region is now the world’s second largest opium producer.

This wasn’t always the case. Back in the late nineteenth century, Southern China had a thriving opium production industry. But when the Chinese Communist Party came into power in the late 1920s, drug production was halted in the country, often through violent means. Fearing for their lives, opium dealers and producers moved further south into Burma (former name of Myanmar) and continued to build their trade there.

The Golden Triangle’s heroin trade generates around $340 million in annual revenue, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated. It currently produces some 25 per cent of the world’s overall opium supply. For reference, an estimated 13.5 million people around the world regularly take opium-derived substances – 9.2 million of which use heroin.

According to the UNODC, it is estimated that as of 2019, there are over 60,000 hectares of opium cultivation in Myanmar and Laos. Thailand, in turn, seems to have brought the problem under control.

Poverty plays a big role in the Golden Triangle’s continued success. A majority of the opium producers are farmers who live far below the poverty line. Taxed tremendously by drug cartels, they resort to rapid production in an effort to make ends meet. UN officials believe that apart from drug control programmes, there is a need to implement schemes targeting bigger issues like poverty and food insecurity to combat the opium trade in the long term.

For further context, Myanmar is one of the world’s poorest nations – in 2019, the United Nations Human Development Report ranked Myanmar as 145th out of 189 countries.

Cracking down on crack

In November 2019, China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand finally came together to crack down on the Golden Triangle’s drug scourge.

Together, they launched Operation Golden Triangle 1511, aiming to strengthen existing narcotic prevention measures and crack down on thriving drug syndicates in the area. All nations involved have deployed anti-drug enforcement forces at their borders to halt and prevent any illegal drug trade activities.

So far, the initiative has gone well. For the first half of 2020, authorities have intervened in 4,510 cases of illegal drug trade – which is up by 26 per cent from 2019’s 1,175 cases. In Cambodia specifically, over 209 kilogrammes of illegal drugs and 500 kilogrammes of illicit drugs were confiscated, and 8,927 suspects have been arrested.

However, production of both synthetic methamphetamines and heroin in the Golden Triangle is currently on the rise. This can be attributed to both the spread of Covid-19 (which has made anti-drug authorities become lax) and the fact that these illegal drugs can be purchased online.

Furthermore, according to the UNODC, as supply has surged and prices have fallen, the “purity” of the drugs has increased, resulting in a more potent product.

A worthy war

This particular war on drugs is facing an uphill battle. It is only set to intensify, considering projections that the global narcotics trade will reach $60 billion.

Thai justice minister Somsak Thepsuthin believes a “global coordination against drugs is needed,” and the Golden Triangle nations no doubt agree. The problem is layered, the effects are severe and the stakes high. The efforts to curb illegal drugs cannot falter now lest the Golden Triangle takes a different shape and becomes a crisis worse than we can imagine.