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Hello, shadowlands : inside Southeast Asia’s $100 billion dark economy

Organized crime in Southeast Asia has entered a golden age : now valued at $100 billion, this dark economy is expected within the next decade to hit $375 billion

Olivier Languepin

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Hello, Shadowlands takes a deep plunge into crime rings both large and small. It also examines how China’s rise and America’s decline is creating new opportunities for transnational syndicates to thrive.

Bangkok-based correspondent Patrick Winn has intimately profiled men and women inside this booming underworld: the dealers, traffickers, vigilantes, motorbike bandits, and others caught up in a mad scramble for cash.

He has emerged with a work of narrative non-fiction titled “Hello, Shadowlands: Inside the Meth Fiefdoms, Rebel Hideouts and Bomb-Scarred Party Towns of Southeast Asia.”

During a press conference at the FCCT last week, he shared some thoughts with other members of the press in Bangkok.

“Why writing this book now ? I believe we are now in the golden age of organized crime in Southeast Asia with a $100 billion turnover this year, and $375 billion predicted by 2025 (UNODC figures).This includes counterfeiting, extortion, wildlife trafficking and narcotics, mainly methamphetamine. In Thailand 90% of drug busts are related to meth trafficking or consumption.”

Focussing on human stories on both sides of this crime wave, Patrick Winn intimately profiles the men and women of the region who are forced to make agonizing choices in the absence of law.

“The methamphetamine consumers I have met are describing a feeling of euphoria that makes almost everything fascinating. In the cheap form of Yaba (20% of meth and the rest mostly caffeine) it is not only a party drug, it is also a job drug that helps you to do tedious and repetitious jobs. Like driving a truck or working in a garment factory.”

Patrick Winn is taking us on a journey from Myanmar’s anarchic hills to the swamplands of Vietnam, from the Thai-Malaysia borderlands to the back alleys of Manila, and to other landscapes where crime syndicates are thriving.

A methamphetamine empire

Among them: a methamphetamine empire churning out more speed pills each year than Starbucks sells coffees worldwide.

“The second reason I wanted to write this book is that most of the criminals I have met do not fit in the stereotype described by the media in general : they are not deranged people and they are pretty rationals in their choices. Also 90% of the times there is no violence implied because it is a drug transaction.”

Taking the example of the Philippines, Patrick Winn explains that beside the drug war led by the government against small traffickers and drug users, there is also the church fighting against contraception pills.

Therefore some women in the Philippines are taking risks and making a living by selling illegal potions made with herbs and medicine as an abortion substitute, given that abortion is illegal in the Philippines.

Drug lords and generals

But the biggest chunk of the shadow economy described in “Shadowlands” remains in the hands of the drug lords, most of them operating from the northern part of Myanmar.

Many of them operating under the dwell of the Myanmar army, like in the Kachin region where Patrick met vigilantes led by the baptist church. Those self empowered law enforcers are fighting drug users by their own laws and justice, because they refuse to be ruled by drug lords.

“The Myanmar generals are using the drug lords for their fights against ethnic minorities. Basically they give the drug militia a license to produce and traffic meth, or any other illegal products, in exchange of their military support against ethnic minorities”

Thailand’s lost war against yaba

When it comes to Thailand, Patrick Winn describes the failure of the authorities to tackle both drug consumption and trafficking, especially for the cheapest and most popular drug called yaba.

“The prisons in Thailand are full of people who are only drug consumers and should not be detained as such. Thailand has one of the highest imprisonment rate in the world (along with the US), especially among women, and 80% of them are drug related.”

Also it is worth noting that from a business point of view, yaba is more efficient than heroin that used to be the number one drug in the 70’s Golden Triangle era.

According to the author this is mainly because the market for the meth is here in Asia with the rising economy, and you don’t have to ship the product in the west like for heroin in the 70’s. Also the infrastructure has gone a lot better and it is easier to move things around on roads with trucks, instead if using mules in the mountains.

As Southeast Asian governments grow increasingly authoritarian and security forces grow more untouchable. This allows police and Military Officers to run their departments like entrepreneurial businesses. Give them a big umbrella of impunity and they will permit criminals  – for the right price – to take shelter underneath.

also explains the author.

Patrick Winn is an award-winning American journalist who covers crime in Southeast Asia. His work has appeared on NBC News, The Atlantic,the BBC and other outlets. 

Currently the Asia correspondent for Public Radio International, each week Winn’s voice is heard by millions on NPR stations. Since 2008, he has lived in Bangkok and reported almost exclusively on Southeast Asia.

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