This article is part of Evolving Threats to Southeast Asia’s Maritime Security, a series of analyses produced by experts convened by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

How has the illicit maritime drug trafficking threat evolved over the last 20 years?

Maritime drug trafficking has transformed into a long-standing threat to maritime security in Southeast Asia, having long been facilitated by traditional maritime routes that were once used to carry drugs such as opium. However, in recent years, the rise of production sites in the Golden Triangle and Golden Crescent has encouraged the distribution of new types of drugs such as crystal methamphetamine tablets, also known regionally as yaba. In addition, drug production has increased significantly in Myanmar during the ongoing civil war that began after the 2021 coup, as armed groups aligned with and against the country’s military are focused on the conflict rather than addressing broader spill-over issues such as drug production and trafficking.

Distribution routes have also evolved. The major regional distribution routes for methamphetamine have traditionally followed land transportation corridors such as the highways that stretch from the hinterlands of Myanmar south into Thailand and Malaysia. Maritime trafficking routes were only used to carry limited volumes of this drug trade. However, the COVID-19 pandemic drastically altered the drug trafficking landscape. The curtailment of land and air transfers during the pandemic led syndicate networks to rely on maritime trafficking as a primary modus operandi and old traditional trafficking routes such as the Western Maritime Route were revived. The Western Maritime Route now plays a central role in transferring methamphetamine from the southern and western coastline of Myanmar along the Andaman Sea and the Strait of Malacca to reach other markets across the region. This route is also connected to tributaries such as westward transfers across the Naaf River into Bangladesh and eastward transfers across the Natuna Sea.

Due to the growing appeal of maritime drug trafficking, methamphetamine from other sources such as the Golden Crescent in the Middle East is also increasingly relying on the Western Maritime route to enter the Southeast Asian market. Vessels ranging from luxury yachts, modified pump boats, and Iranian dhows are suspected to be employed in this growing drug trade. This expansion of maritime drug trafficking risks further perpetrating the harmful effects of illicit drug use while inviting the growing presence of international syndicate networks in the region. Even as COVID-19 restrictions end, such routes are likely to persist now that international syndicates are increasingly embedded within the region’s maritime space. Such adaptability is a key strategy for drug traffickers. Routes are also likely to continue evolving in response to uneven legalization across the region, continually shifting supply and demand dynamics, and enforcement activities.

What are the primary governance tools that are being used in response to the illicit maritime drug trafficking threat? 

Enforcement agencies in key transit states such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines are recognizing the need to improve coastal monitoring by enhancing patrol operations and information sharing levels amongst themselves. At the national level, national fusion centers such as the Philippines’ National Coast Watch Centre play a key role in disseminating information on suspicious activity to relevant national enforcement agencies. This is complemented by inter-agency task forces (such as Operation Benteng in Malaysia) and routine maritime exchanges between counter-narcotics and maritime law enforcement agencies during which key information is shared. At the regional level, platforms such as the ASEAN Seaport Interdiction Task Force and the Forum on Maritime Trafficking Routes – Southeast Asia (MTR-SEA) offer enforcement agencies opportunities to strengthen coordination levels with their regional counterparts. This includes recognizing the limitations and capabilities of neighboring states in processing cross-jurisdictional trafficking cases while strengthening personal rapport with other officers. Organizations such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) work with governments and regional partners to address the challenges related to drugs and precursor chemicals in the region. The Global Synthetics Monitoring: Analyses, Reporting and Trends Programme, for example, addresses the capacity of member states and authorities in priority regions. It aims to do so by assisting member states to generate, manage, analyze, and report synthetic drug information, and to apply scientific evidence-based knowledge to design policies and programs. A new Regional Programme for Southeast Asia and the Pacific for the period 2022–2026 was recently announced by the UNODC that focuses on drug trafficking. The UNODC also provides secretariat and technical support to cooperative arrangements such as the Mekong Memorandum of Understanding which brings together countries in the Mekong together to address the threat of illicit drug trafficking. Through these various governance tools, it is hoped that the information and coordination gap between agencies that operate along the land and sea border can be effectively closed.

What are the primary harms the illicit maritime drug trafficking threat poses to regional stakeholders? 

Illicit maritime drug trafficking poses a web of threats to the social fabric and maritime safety in Southeast Asia. Growing consumption of drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine has escalated during the pandemic years, resulting in a heavy addiction problem across drug markets such as Indonesia and Malaysia. When compounded with other socio-economic disturbances such as growing unemployment and increasingly affordable drug prices, the demand for these drugs is anticipated to continue expand.  Additionally, the supply of methamphetamine into Southeast Asia is expected to escalate as innovative production methods such as hydraulic pumps can produce higher daily volumes of drugs. Furthermore, the influx of methamphetamine and cocaine from new sources such as the Golden Crescent and the Pacific Ocean risks further inundating the consumer market with a greater variety of drugs.

In the meantime, maritime drug trafficking threatens the prosperity of coastal communities. Fishers that have suffered from a decline in income are known to be recruited by syndicate networks to transfer drugs across transnational borders. Fishing vessels are often rented by syndicate members to transfer the drugs under the cover of fishing. Syndicate networks have also paid fishermen to share information on enforcement patrols. Without a sustainable alternative of income, the recruitment of fishers into trafficking operations can further absorb local communities into the dangerous web of illegal activities.

How has maritime awareness developed to reduce the illicit maritime drug trafficking threat? 

With the multitude of competing maritime security threats in Southeast Asia, there has yet to be a sharper prioritization on developing the maritime awareness needed to counter maritime drug trafficking. Currently, most efforts in developing maritime awareness remain unilateral as national counter-narcotic and maritime law enforcement agencies deploy independent assets to collect information on suspicious activities at sea. However, the rise of information fusion centers and data collection platforms such as the MTR-SEA Drug Compendium have alerted regional agencies to common patterns that take place in maritime drug trafficking across the region. Through continuous and greater dialogue at the regional level, counter-narcotics and maritime law enforcement agencies are beginning to recognize linkages in maritime drug trafficking cases across their respective jurisdictions. This has led to a call for greater coordination in areas such as increased informal connections on web platforms, joint training, and shared information databases. Organizations such as the Global Maritime Crime Programme at the UNODC are also offering information sharing tools such as the Vessels of Interest List and a working Compendium on Maritime Drug Seizures in the region.

What additional context is necessary to understand the maritime security challenges associated with the illicit maritime drug trafficking threat?

Maritime drug trafficking is a maritime crime that may be perpetrated by international syndicate networks, but it is driven by national demand and enabled by weak enforcement.  Counter-narcotics and maritime law enforcement agencies are well-poised to address the symptoms of maritime drug trafficking by apprehending trafficking operations. However, other maritime security sectors such as coastal communities, shipping industries, and the media also have roles to play in curtailing the roots of maritime drug trafficking. Maritime awareness is a responsibility that expands beyond enforcement agencies and needs to be upheld by other sectors as well. Other sea users such as the shipping industry need to be encouraged to share information on suspicious activity observed at sea with counter-narcotics and enforcement agencies. Similarly, leaders of coastal communities and the media can advocate for a drug-free environment to deter coastal communities from participating in trafficking operations. By recognizing the various responsibilities of different sectors in maritime sector, a greater whole-of-society approach needs to be adopted in better countering maritime drug trafficking in Southeast Asia. This includes public health interventions addressing demand by foregrounding harm-reduction, treatment, and support that takes into account socio-structural influences on drug-taking. Such interventions are currently limited in the region, though there has been some progressive re-orientation.

About Asyura Salleh

Dr. Asyura Salleh oversees regional programmes designed to combat maritime crime under the Global Maritime Crime Programme (Southeast Asia and the Pacific) at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.