By Jonathan Evert Rayon

Based on the World Drug Report in 2018, 31 million people worldwide suffered from drug use disorders resulting in millions enduring health risks such as hepatitis C and HIV. Drug trafficking is defined by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) as illicit trade which involves the cultivation, manufacture, distribution and sale of substances subject to drug prohibition laws, and is a prevalent issue in Southeast Asia. As discussed at the 7th ASEAN Drug Monitoring Network (ADMN) during 5th-7th March 2019, drug cases in 2018 experienced an increase, with most drug cases taking place in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. The fact that over 90 percent of drug offences were conducted by ASEAN nationals despite serious measures taken by member countries, such as the Philippines’ war on drugs or Indonesia’s potential death penalty, emphasises the realisation of a Drug-Free ASEAN remains a challenge.

The Problem of Drug Trafficking in Southeast Asia

Drug trafficking is a major security threat in Southeast Asia which targets people from different backgrounds, ages and genders. Based on the ASEAN Drug Monitoring Report in 2017, there were 357,443 illicit drug cases in the region, with 64.6% of them involving Amphetamine-Type Stimulants (ATS). In 2017, there were more than 300,000 drug users admitted to drug treatment. Furthermore, the worsening drug situation in the region is also linked to ASEAN’s geographical proximity to the Golden Triangle. This 950,000-square kilometre area, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and China meet, has a reputation as the centre of the world’s drug trafficking.

In spite of not being a drug producing country, Cambodia has been affected by regional and international drug trafficking. Located in the Golden Triangle, Cambodia is used as a transit place before drug syndicates transport the illegal substances to third markets. There was also a steep increase of 35.1 percent in the total seizure of drugs in 2017 in this country. In Indonesia, a country’s population which makes up slightly over 40% of ASEAN’s total population, the drug situation also remains problematic. In 2017, the National Narcotics Board and Indonesian National Police uncovered more than 51,000 drug cases with the total seizure of 151.5 tons of cannabis and 3.8 tons of crystalline methamphetamine (or shabu). Similar cases were also reported by Myanmar and Thailand where drug traffickers used a number of techniques in concealing drugs to be distributed or transported to other areas. Although drug abuse may vary, narcotics, namely cannabis, heroin, opium, methamphetamine tablets and crystalline methamphetamine, have been recognised as five major problems in every ASEAN country. Despite the alarming status, data related to the number of drug users remain imprecise as many ASEAN member countries do not conduct regular surveys while some do not even conduct them at all. This lack of consistent data creates its own unique problems.

ASEAN’s Cooperation in Dealing with the Problem of Drug Trafficking

The idea to create a Drug-Free ASEAN first emerged at the 31st ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, held in July 1998, where ASEAN Foreign Ministers signed the Joint Declaration for a Drug-Free ASEAN. The Declaration asserted each country’s commitment to eradicate the production, processing, trafficking and use of illicit drugs in Southeast Asia by the year 2020. Although the idea was formalised in 1998, ASEAN has started to demonstrate its commitment to addressing the issue of drug trafficking since its establishment in 1967. In 2000, at the 33rd ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, all countries agreed to advance the target year to realise a drug-free region to 2015, even though the goal of Drug-Free ASEAN was not yet decided. It was in 2007 that the Association formulated the vision of Drug-Free ASEAN 2015 which was to successfully and effectively control illicit drugs activities and mitigate its negative consequences to society.

The vision of Drug-Free ASEAN 2015 was highlighted in 2009 by the adoption of the ASEAN Work Plan on Combating Illicit Drug Production, Trafficking and Use 2009-2015. The implementation of the Plan was regularly monitored and assessed by ASEAN Senior Officials on Drug Matters (ASOD) and UNODC. Based on its final assessment in 2014, UNODC recommended ASEAN to take significant steps to reduce supply and demand since challenges were still widespread and new threats were emerging. As a result, the regional body adopted the ASEAN Work Plan on Securing Communities against Illicit Drugs 2016-2025 as a continuation of previous work – proposing several activities, starting from preventive education, law enforcement, treatment and rehabilitation, research, alternative development and extra-regional cooperation. In addition, ASEAN member countries have also been cooperating with other non-member countries to implement the ASEAN Cooperation Plan to Tackle Illicit Drug Production and Trafficking in the Golden Triangle 2017-2019.

Even though drug abuse conditions may vary from one country to another, it is important for ASEAN not to leave any countries to face the problem alone. Firstly, a regional problem requires a regional solution. Instead of focusing on addressing the issue alone, ASEAN countries must acknowledge that drug trafficking is often a transnational crime conducted by an extensive criminal network operating beyond national borders. This implies that no country in the region is immune to drug trafficking as each can be targeted as a transit place or a prospective market. As an example, Thailand authorities explained that a large amount of drugs had been moved from neighbouring Laos into Thailand before they were taken south towards Malaysia. Secondly, complimenting national policies which have been implemented by countries, thereby strengthening regional cooperation to combat the issue, also signifies ASEAN’s foundation as a unified organisation. Since its formation, ASEAN has always adhered to one of its principles of effective cooperation among its members. This principle was reaffirmed when all member countries agreed to create a resilient community in a peaceful, secure and stable region with the ASEAN Political-Security Community. Thus, a comprehensive approach is needed to respond to this non-traditional security threat.

All in all, a number of responses which have been taken indicate ASEAN’s resolute commitment to tackling the issue of drug trafficking. However, to promote a Drug-Free ASEAN, all countries must work side by side to get to grips with this non-conventional threat. Therefore, several actions can be taken. Due to different national capabilities, it is recommended that ASEAN establish a region-wide capacities curriculum for law enforcement and provide common language training since the lack of a common language often limits the ability to communicate effectively among countries. Furthermore, it is also crucial for ASEAN member countries to enhance information and experience sharing activities, especially related to border seizure to help create effective strategies to prevent criminals from evading border security checks. In line with recommendations by UNODC, ASEAN is also advised to cooperate with numerous non-governmental organisations and establish regional monitoring to measure the effectiveness of civic awareness campaigns in reducing the demand as high demand is one of the most contributing factors of the increase in drug cases in Southeast Asia.

Jonathan Evert Rayon is an intern in ASEAN Studies Center, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada