This undated handout photo received on October 31, 2012 from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows opium poppies in bloom in the hills of Myanmar's East Shan state.
FILE - This undated handout photo received Oct. 31, 2012, from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows opium poppies in bloom in the hills of Myanmar's East Shan state.

BANGKOK - Opium production in Myanmar, the world’s second-largest cultivator of the poppies that are the base ingredient for heroin, has dropped, according to a United Nations study released Thursday, as "Golden Triangle” drug lords focus on the more lucrative synthetic drug trade.

Myanmar’s lawless borderlands are home to fertile growing ground for poppies, but the area under cultivation has been in retreat, according to the annual survey by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

Around 405 metric tons of opium were produced in Myanmar last year, about half the amount recorded in 2013.

Instead, the drug trade of the Golden Triangle -- a corner of remote, hilly land that cuts into Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and China -- is dominated by methamphetamine production. The drug is available both as the “yaba” -- “crazy drug” in Thai -- pills, in which the meth is mixed with caffeine, and the highly addictive crystallized version known as “ice.”

“Opium production is down 11 to 12% on the previous year,” Jeremy Douglas, UNODC Southeast Asia and the Pacific Regional representative told VOA Monday.

“This decline is intimately linked to the surge of synthetic drugs.”

Farmers are also earning significantly less from raw opium -- a collapse in income worsened by the pandemic -- and are therefore turning away from it, the report added, while the government eradicated around 2,000 hectares of poppy fields.

However, the report said Myanmar “remains the major supplier of opium and heroin in East and Southeast Asia, as well as Australia,” a region of around 3 million users consuming around $10 billion of the drug each year.

The money still helps drive a drug economy for crime groups who are interwoven with the patchwork of armed ethnic militias operating in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state and eastern Shan state, where drug laboratories process heroin alongside meth.

Myanmar’s opium production “still has a clear impact on the conflict situation,” the report added.

“There has long been a connection between drugs and conflict ... a corrosive political economy and facilitates continued militarisation, ultimately helping sustain civil conflict,” it said.

Meth money

Meth, though, is where the real money is to be made. Golden Triangle drug labs continue to pull in huge volumes of precursor chemicals and churn out record amounts of the yaba and ice, flooding neighboring countries and beyond with the drug.

Thailand’s latest seizure figures for 2019 show police netted nearly 400 million yaba pills and about 17 metric tons of ice.

Drugs are making the meth lords of Asia extremely rich. It is impossible to quantify their illegal take, but some estimates reach up to $70 billion a year, money Thai drug police say is laundered across the region into property, construction, casinos and cryptocurrency.

Yet, until recently the figures at the top of the crime pyramid remained shadowy figures, who avoid the spotlight and body count left by their more infamous Latin American peers.

That changed last month when Tse Chi Lop, the alleged leader of one of Asia’s biggest drug syndicates, was arrested in the Netherlands.

He is being prepared for extradition to Australia, where a 10-year investigation has him pegged for allegedly running a notorious syndicate called The Company, believed to be behind the sprawling meth trade of the Asia-Pacific.

In Thailand, seizures of yaba pills and ice hit records annually and have not stopped despite the pandemic’s restrictions on movement.

This week 1.3 million yaba pills were found by Thai authorities left on a bank of the Mekong River in the northeast of Thailand, along the border with Laos, a sign of flourishing cross-border trade.

The drugs pour through long, open borders with Myanmar and Laos into a kingdom which is both a large meth market as well as a storage and transit point for shipments south to Malaysia and as far as Japan and Australia.

In Bangkok, users and addiction counselors say the trend has long since moved from opiates to synthetic drugs as prices plummet.

Fifteen years ago, a gram of ice would cost 2,200 to 3,500 baht, compared to 800 baht -- $27 at current exchange rates -- a former ice addict told VOA, requesting anonymity. “That means virtually anyone can buy it,” he said.

At his drug clinic Shaowpicha Techo, a drug rehabilitation counselor at a Bangkok health clinic, said 80% to 90% of patients use meth and other synthetic drugs, “while patients addicted to naturally occurring substances like opium and kratom have gone down,” he added, referring to mild narcotic derived from a Southeast Asian plant.