Many know of the Opioid Crisis in America, but few are aware of the spectre of a severe drug crisis in Southeast Asia. There is more than meets the eye when examining the drug crisis – the complexity of this crisis makes its resolution unlikely in the near future, and it presents a dangerously ominous outlook on the future of Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asian Responses
Several Southeast Asian nations adopt and enforce harsh laws against substance abuse and trafficking. The President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte’s “War on Drugs” has won him the ire of the international community, and many criticise his policies as draconian and ineffective. Singapore is another country that also adopts a hard-line stance against drugs. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, traffickers of controlled drugs face the possibility of capital punishment.
It’s true that the possibility of a severe drug crisis in Southeast Asia is damning enough to elicit a strong response from policymakers. However, are the policies implemented thus far sufficient in addressing the complexities of the drug crisis?
The Boom in Synthetic Drug Production
Organised crime groups in Southeast Asia have reinvented their business models to profit extensively from synthetic drugs, with methamphetamine and heroin markets valued at a staggering US$61.3billion and US$10.3billion respectively. The plan to establish control is well-orchestrated – drugs in Southeast Asia are sold at rock-bottom prices to increase demand, and drugs of higher purity are exported to countries where citizens have higher purchasing power, such as Japan and New Zealand. The success of this business model affects civil society in two ways – on a personal level, the proliferation of drugs hurts the quality of life of members of society. On a broader societal level, organised crime groups not only have greater leverage over citizens to whom they provide employment and drugs, but they also have a steady and significant revenue stream. The potential for power imbalances due to the rise of organised crime groups could throw the region into a state of political tumult. Given the interconnectedness of Southeast Asian states, the rise of an organised crime group in a country will invariably affect its neighbours.
Unfortunately, drug policies in Southeast Asia hold a strong but misplaced focus on punishing those at the end of the chain – drug users and traffickers. Duterte’s notorious War on Drugs has claimed an estimated 12,000 lives, and about 455,000 people who use drugs have been held in detention centres in Southeast Asia in recent years. Furthermore, even Singapore (known for its unwavering conviction towards the necessity of capital punishment) has admitted that drug smugglings have risen despite the increase in hangings. Draconian punishments have incurred damagingly high costs to society, while evidently failing to provide sufficient deterrence against drug use and trafficking.
Meanwhile, organised crime groups are doing well to raise demand for drugs, and government policies that seek to curb its demand are clearly not enough. What the region needs is, therefore, a concerted and collective effort to regulate the production of synthetic drugs. This, however, opens another can of worms for the region. The high level of autonomy of warlords in the Shan State of Myanmar, which is a huge source of synthetic drugs, are key conditions that facilitated the boom in synthetic drug production. These existing conditions thus have to be tackled for there to be any progress in the fight against drugs. ASEAN member states, however, are known for their adherence to the principles of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. Loose regulations in Myanmar stem from its political instability, yet the extent to which ASEAN member states can interfere in its domestic affairs is limited, even if the spillover effects are significant.
In some way, the drug crisis contributes to the already widening discourse on the utility of ASEAN members’ adherence to the principle of non-interference. The principle of non-interference has come at a cost to ASEAN’s effectiveness in the area of counterterrorism, and this same principle might continue to incur high-security costs to ASEAN. Should ASEAN continue to adhere to these principles, or should it adopt a more flexible stance for the greater good? To what extent should the regional and international community interfere in the domestic affairs of another country? Do the ends justify the means and the risks that follow, especially if they occur at the expense of the country where the intervention is occurring? Perhaps the answers to these questions can only be answered with the benefit of hindsight, but many lives continue to be lost in the interim. Regardless of the path chosen, the stakes are high — compromising on the principle of non-interference can be highly unpopular among members yet retaining these values damage on the effectiveness of ASEAN in times of crises. While the looming drug crisis incurs exorbitant costs to ASEAN members, banding together should be the top priority of ASEAN. Choosing to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries is sure to widen fault lines within the organisation, and having a divided ASEAN is as good as not having an ASEAN.
Cover image illustrated by Marc Schaefer