ASEAN’s Transnational Crime Networks

New infrastructure within the region may be facilitating cross-border crime.

By Philip Heijmans
February 17, 2015

Regional connectivity projects being implemented ahead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Economic Community scheduled for this year could have the adverse effect of making human trafficking and drug smuggling easier for transnational crime networks, anti-drug and human rights organizations have warned.

The growing performance of the regional economy has led to an uptick in physical infrastructure projects throughout Southeast Asia in recent years, with the building of new roads, bridges and energy supplies. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has mobilized more than $20 billion under the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Program.

These investments have given a boost to intra-regional trade with Southeast Asia, while connectivity within the region is as high as it has ever been.

In the most recent effort to bolster connectivity, six countries along the Mekong River in December pledged to spend an additional $30 billion on related infrastructure projects over the next 10 years.

Despite the progress, experts are worried that a lack of safeguards at the borders and the overly expeditious nature of new projects stemming from ASEAN connectivity mandates could further enable growing trafficking and transnational crime operations.

“We all know it is already occurring – the transnational crime economy is quite big in the region and it goes through a lot of legitimate border crossings,” said Jeremy Douglas, regional representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC).

Douglas said that with human and drug trafficking already a major problem at existing borders throughout the region, new cross-border projects being proposed by financial institutions and ASEAN itself will likely only make the problem worse.

“If things are stopped or slowed down at the borders [for more thorough security checks], businesses won’t like that. There is already a lack of a system in place – then you say you want to double the number of crossings,” he said.

“There are a lot of great ASEAN economic initiatives out there. The problem is that they are not adequate,” he said.

A UNODC report released in August called “Effective Frontline Border Management in Southeast Asia’s New Era of Integration” estimates that annual organized criminal revenues in East Asia and the Pacific are around $90 billion. Of that figure, $31.3 billion comes from the sale of illicit drugs like heroin and methamphetamine, while the sale of counterfeits and environmental crimes like illegal logging and the wildlife trade are said to be worth $30 billion and $24 billion, respectively.

The trafficking of persons and migrant smuggling is a $2 billion industry, according to the report.

“As the region moves towards further beneficial trade and migration flows, threats arising from trafficking and associated criminality are becoming truly integrated within the region and in connections to regions beyond,” the report states.

Built in 2007, the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge connecting Mukdahan with Savannakhet has become one example of new infrastructure facilitating drug trafficking, as Thai authorities started making major methamphetamine drug seizures “immediately after the bridge opened and acknowledged they had not prepared for drug trafficking to increase around it,” according to Douglas.

“It is quite telling that risks like this are still not anticipated and mitigated against, and in recent briefings in 2014 we have heard concerns raised by national law enforcement about new infrastructure connections going ahead without adequate measures to counter transnational crime being put in place,” he said.

The Royal Thai Police’s Anti-Human Trafficking Division was contacted, but did not respond in time for this report.

In another indication of growing drug trafficking, opium poppy cultivation in the heroin-producing ‘Golden Triangle’ region — the area adjoining Myanmar, Laos and Thailand — has nearly tripled since 2006, according to a separate UNODC report released in December.

“It’s a good time to be a trafficker in Southeast Asia, mainly because regional governments are doing very little to prosecute criminal syndicates and end the practice,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “On top of that, authorities in Myanmar and Thailand are directly involved in trafficking persons. If the authorities really wanted to prosecute traffickers, they’d start looking in their own ranks.”

Still, not everybody is buying the argument that more infrastructure means more crime.

“This argument could almost be applied to any infrastructure. If anything, what I think will happen – is that developing the borders will push the crime elsewhere. It won’t go through the official borders once a proper gate and security is up. It simply won’t be as easy as it is now,” said Peter Brimble, the ADB’s principal country specialist for Myanmar.

“Obviously, if there is compelling evidence that the crime issue is serious, then we’d have to take it into account.”

ASEAN, which consists of 10 nations, was formed in 1967 in the hope of bringing economic and social prosperity to the region by creating unifying policies under a singular banner. In a landmark policy to accomplish that feat, ASEAN leaders moved in 2007 to take on establishing a single market for the region with the ASEAN Economic Community.

In an effort to combat rising cross-border crime, ASEAN holds an annual ministerial meeting dedicated to the issue and has vowed to improve its database of known offenders as well as maximize communication between the various police forces of member states.

Still, some experts believe that measures taken to deal with the problem have been insufficient, while ASEAN has done little to address it in a meaningful way.

“The reality is that ASEAN is less than the sum of its parts. As ASEAN currently operates, it will only be able to solve such a problem if the national governments give them the authority, the personnel and the resources to do so,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

“Issues of smuggling are sensitive issues, so it’s unlikely that governments are just going to hand these matters over for ASEAN to solve,” he said.  “Like ASEAN does on human rights, I expect they will continue to muddle along without making significant progress.”

The ASEAN Secretariat declined to comment.

Regardless of the issues that come with new infrastructure, some view them as a necessary risk for the better good – moving forward a region of 620 million people.

“There are ways we can detect and manage these kinds of things. There is nothing in this world without risks,” said Win Khaing, president of the Myanmar Engineering Society and vice-chairman of the Myanmar Engineering Council, member of the Myanmar Investment Commission. “If you want to open up some bad things will come in. You have just to accept that. You cannot have everything perfectly just the way you want. We need to have connectivity.

“I think we need to look for smart solutions. There are technologies around. We just need to apply them.”