Southeast Asia is known for its harsh drug policies and strict punishments for drug-related crimes, created in response to waves of massive drug production in the region. We look at the origins and current state of Southeast Asian drug laws, and how you can avoid incurring their severe consequences.
The Golden Triangle may feel more like the Bermuda Triangle for an increasing number of drug offenders, long lost in harsh legislation and sentenced to lengthy prison terms or even death. Being caught in possession of drugs in Southeast Asia brings serious consequences.
Strict drug laws in Southeast Asia do not exist arbitrarily and, regardless of how it may seem, they are not tailored to foreigners. While cases involving foreigners quickly find their way to international media, arrests and mandatory sentences for both minor and major drug offenses are regular occurrences throughout the region.
The Golden Triangle and the Origins of the War on Drugs
Southeast Asia and the Golden Triangle (a 950,000-square-kilometer area that includes parts of Thailand, Lao PDR and Myanmar) have long been linked to drugs. The region was once known for hosting the most extensive heroin production in the world, and while it remains a major global source of opium, production has shifted toward methamphetamines and synthetic drugs in recent years. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that in the past several decades there has been a steep increase in the production of opium, amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) and new psychoactive substances (NPS) in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Golden Triangle. The resulting war on drugs is a response to this surge in drug manufacturing, trafficking and domestic drug epidemics.
Drug Use Among Southeast Asian Nationals
As a result of cultural stigmas, drug use in Southeast Asia is largely underreported. If national statistics are available, they are generally inaccurate. Opiates, mainly heroin, are still believed to be the most common strain of drugs used in Vietnam, Malaysia and Myanmar, though it is likely declining in the face of newly emerging drug trends and changing markets.
Methamphetamine use continues to grow throughout the region and has eclipsed opiates as the most popular drug in Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR and the Philippines. Yaba, a common methamphetamine used in the region, is highly addictive and inexpensive, making it a huge threat to public health, as evidenced by the yaba epidemic in Thailand.
ASEAN and Regional Drug Policy
While each nation has its own set of drug laws, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) promotes a zero-tolerance approach against drugs in the region. This stance, while seeming spot-on from a public relations perspective, has unfortunately resulted in a lack of harm reduction and treatment services for people who use drugs. The UNODC reports that “In some countries, particularly in South East Asia, residential alternatives may be little different to imprisonment. Many people are held in mandatory ‘drug detention’ centres, including some 235,000 people in China and South East Asia.”
The ASEAN goal of reaching drug-free status by 2015 also led to a serious intensification of law enforcement approaches with severe consequences on the economy, public health, and society at large.
While the current regional drug policy is problematic, it seems the vastly disproportionate penalties for drugs offences in individual countries are equally as such. Severe punishments for both minor and major drug offenses have led to the overcrowding of prisons in the region. Intense fear of being arrested has also led to a rise in the prevalence of HIV and hepatitis among people who inject drugs as they are afraid to seek services for their addictions. Current HIV transmission statistics in Southeast Asia indicate that among intravenous drug users, Indonesia has the highest rate of HIV at 36%, while Myanmar and Thailand are at 22%.
Drugs and the Death Penalty
Southeast Asian nations are some of the worst places in the world to be caught with drugs. More than half of the countries in ASEAN apply the death penalty to drug-related crimes of varying severity, though not all enforce it. Citizens and foreigners alike are consistently executed for non-violent drug crimes. Earlier this year, Vietnam sentenced 30 people to death for smuggling heroin.
Indonesia plans to execute 18 drug convicts this year, and another 30 in 2017. Two of the infamous Bali Nine – nine Australians who were arrested in 2005 for smuggling $4 million worth of heroin from Indonesia to Australia – were executed by firing squad in 2015.
Recreational Drug Use in Southeast Asia
In some parts of Southeast Asia it is true that select drugs are considered medicinal, their use being therefore culturally accepted. Depending on the country, drugs that fall into this category may include marijuana, opium or psychedelic mushrooms. The fact remains, however, that regardless of the level of cultural acceptance and willingness by some authorities to turn a blind eye, under official law these drugs are still illegal and punishments for use and possession still exist.
Drug Mules in Southeast Asia
Southeast Asian drug syndicates still employ drug mules (people who knowingly or unknowingly transport drugs on behalf of someone else) as their most common method of trafficking. This problem is becoming particularly widespread as drug trafficking between Southeast Asia, Australia and West Africa gains momentum.
A mule typically receives a large payment for committing this act, as there is obviously a high level of risk involved. Mules are generally targeted by drug traffickers as being someone vulnerable to monetary persuasion, either out of ignorance or desperation.
One such case occurred in 2005, when Nguyen Tuong Van was caught with nearly half a kilogram of heroin at Singapore’s Changi International Airport on a stopover between Cambodia and Australia. Nguyen maintained throughout the trial that he carried the drugs in a bid to pay off his twin brother’s legal debts. The story proved insufficient to persuade the judge – Nguyen received the mandatory sentence for his crime and was subsequently hanged at the infamous Changi prison.
While drug mules are often aware of their violations and the accompanying risks, they are sometimes blackmailed into smuggling drugs. Increasingly, drugs are planted on unknowing tourists who sometimes are caught with the substances with no idea of where they came from. As you can imagine, when someone doesn’t speak the local language and has no familiarity with the legal system, it becomes quite difficult to prove their innocence. Unwitting mules often bear the consequences of other people’s illegal actions.
How to Protect Yourself as a Foreigner Traveling to Southeast Asia
As a foreigner traveling in this region, it is your responsibility to inform yourself about and maintain respect for local laws, regardless of your personal opinions of them. Southeast Asia may seem to many like a carefree vacationland where nothing can go wrong, but this sense of security is dangerous in a society that still maintains strict cultural and legal restrictions on what many consider casual drug use.
Do not take chances – when traveling abroad, be sure to keep your baggage in your possession at all times. If you are checking baggage, it is best to use luggage locks to deter entrance of foreign packages into your personal bags. Never accept any offers to transport baggage on behalf of someone else, even if you think you know that person. And of course, do not involve yourself with people who are involved in illegal activities. With some awareness and due diligence, you can enjoy your travels while avoiding the harsh realities of Southeast Asian drug laws.