In September 2015, Myanmar’s democratic stateswoman Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to the country’s lawless drug producing region to publicize the country’s urgent need for anti-drug policy. The Southeast Asian country is a main player in global narco-trafficking, and its poppy cultivation has nearly tripled since 2006. Most of these illicit activities occur in the infamous Golden Triangle. So, what exactly is the Golden Triangle?
Well, the Golden Triangle is a region overlapping the rural mountains of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. It is Southeast Asia’s primary opium-producing area, accounting for nearly a quarter of the world’s opium This makes the Golden Triangle the second largest opium producer, after Afghanistan.
Opium is extracted from vast poppy fields, then trafficked around the region, mostly going through China, and even making it all the way to the United States.
Myanmar produces nearly 90 percent of the Golden Triangle’s opium, while Laos and Thailand are more involved in trafficking than production. Opium was outlawed in Myanmar in 1962, but it has since become a key player in the country’s economy. Hard drugs like meth and heroin bring in an estimated $1 to $2 billion dollars per year, making them the country’s second -largest export after petroleum gas. Moreover, Myanmar’s government is not only powerless to control drug production and trade, they are complicit in the operation.
The Golden Triangle’s rural, mountainous landscape is poorly patrolled and largely governed by armed rebel groups. To combat this, the government deploys their own militaries to the region. However, state-backed militia members often traffick drugs themselves, and enjoy legal immunity from prosecution.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Golden Triangle’s booming opium industry is an indirect result of America’s long fight against communism. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the CIA allegedly supplied a Chinese rebel group against Mao Zedong’s communists. To fund their operations, the rebel group pushed local farmers to ramp up opium production, which the rebels trafficked and sold with US support. As a result, Opium production in Myanmar increased twenty-fold, and although the operation had little effect on communism in China, it led to the large-scale poppy cultivation we see today. Similarly, French-occupied Laos also used the French military to increase production of opium to fund their war against Communism in the 1950s.
Today, the largest organized resistance to the Golden Triangle’s narco-trade is a Christian vigilante group called Pat Jasan. They claim roughly 100,000 members, and are known for extreme confrontational measures, like flogging drug addicts and hacking down poppy fields.
And even though Pat Jasan’s goals do align with those of Western governments, the group doesn’t receive any foreign funding, leaving them largely powerless. Meanwhile, Thailand’s government has been somewhat successful in halting opium production in the country, and has even re-branded its portion of the Golden Triangle as a tourist destination.
Many hope that Myanmar’s new leadership will crack down on opium production and drug use. But the ruling party has only acknowledged the existence of the problem, without presenting any workable solution. Until they do, illicit drug trade will continue to plague the region.
Southeast Asia isn’t the only region known for its production of drugs. Pakistan is one of the major producers of heroin in the Golden Crescent, and is fueling a massive heroin problem.