While thousands of drug convicts sit on death row in prisons across South-East Asia, the local trade in methamphetamine and other illicit drugs is flourishing.
- Most ASEAN states continue to defend the use of the death penalty for drug crimes
- At least 120 tons of methamphetamine were seized in South-East Asia during 2018
- Experts say record drug busts don’t reflect better policing, but larger-scale production
Just last month, two Australian men were arrested in Bali for possession of cocaine and could be jailed for up to 12 years.
If they’re found guilty of trafficking, they face up to 20 years in prison or death.
Out of 14 countries identified as actively applying the death penalty for drug crimes by watchdog Harm Reduction International (HRI), nearly half are in South-East Asia: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
But despite the hard-line approach, a July 2019 report by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found that South-East Asia was producing methamphetamine in “quantities unimaginable a decade ago” — much of which is making its way to Australian shores.
‘Shoot them straight away. Show no mercy’
A high proportion of those given the death penalty by South-East Asian states are foreigners.
Indonesia’s President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo — generally presented as a moderate — has been an enthusiastic advocate of the death penalty for drug-related crimes.
Remnants of a vigil for Bali Nine pair Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran at Martin Place in Sydney after their execution. (AAP: Frances Mao)
It was under his watch that Bali Nine members Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were killed by firing squad in 2015.
“Just shoot them,” Mr Widodo said of drug traffickers at a meeting of Indonesian mayors in 2017.
“Especially foreign drug dealers who enter and put up some resistance. Shoot them straight away. Show no mercy.”
This week, authorities confirmed that a Malaysian national had been arrested for allegedly attempting to bring 6 kilograms of methamphetamine across the Indonesian border, who if convicted, will face execution.
“Indonesia has determined that the death penalty should be applied to drug lords and big operators,” Police Brigadier General Sulistyo Pudjo Hartono, a spokesman for Indonesia’s National Anti-Narcotics Agency, told the ABC.
“Indonesia has become a market for illegal meth, so we need to make sure that our bordering countries take harsh actions against the drug rings.”
In neighbouring Singapore, a third of the 15 people killed by the state in 2018 were foreign nationals, according to HRI.
Rights groups have flagged that 10 death row prisoners are likely to be killed imminently, including one Malaysian national with an intellectual disability.
But the city-state remains steadfast in its commitment to hanging drug criminals.
South-East Asian authorities routinely hold public burnings of drug seizures. (Reuters: Samrang Pring)
“Show us a model that works better, that delivers a better outcome for citizens, and we will consider changing,” Singapore’s Law Minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam told the UN General Assembly in 2016.
Studies have shown, however, that implementation of the death penalty does not work as an effective deterrent to crime.
Jeffrey Fagan, a professor of law at Columbia University who appeared as an expert witness for Mr Chan and Mr Sukumaran, told the Indonesian Constitutional Court in 2007 that his research had shown there is no evidence that killing criminals has the impact of stemming the drug trade.
“Comparisons of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore show that the rate of execution has no effect on the prices of drugs nor on the relative rates of drug prevalence,” he said.
Southeast Asian governments are renowned for imposing the toughest drug penalties on the planet.
The biggest meth market in the world
The UNODC estimates the region’s meth trade is worth up to $US61 billion. (ABC News: Graphic by Jarrod Fankhauser)
The UNODC’s report revealed that the illicit methamphetamine market of South-East Asia and its neighbours in East Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Bangladesh, is now worth between $US30.3 and $US61.4 billion ($44.5-$90 billion).
“The Asia-Pacific meth market is now the biggest in the world,” UNODC’s representative for South-East Asia and the Pacific, Jeremy Douglas, told Reuters.
John Coyne, head of Strategic Policing and Law Enforcement at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told the ABC that there is a “perfect storm” of factors driving the methamphetamine trade in the region — lawless areas of the so-called Golden Triangle in which to produce drugs in Myanmar and Laos, rampant corruption, and relatively lax border protection.
“Australia and other countries have an unquenchable thirst for methamphetamine,” he said.
Some 120 tons of methamphetamine in both crystalline and tablet form were seized by South-East Asian authorities last year “in quantities unimaginable a decade ago”, the UNODC report said.
According to Mr Coyne, the record seizures of meth in Australia and South-East Asia are a reflection of record levels of production, rather than more effective policing.
Biker gangs have driven the methamphetamine epidemic in Australia, and are increasingly extending their networks into South-East Asia to take advantage of the boom.
Yaba — small red methamphetamine tablets — are rife in Myanmar and other parts of South-East Asia. (Reuters)
In a statement provided to the ABC, an Australian Federal Police (AFP) spokesperson said that they could not comment on the size or value of the illicit drug trade, but that there was “high demand” in Australia.
“It is an unfortunate reality that Australia is an attractive destination for organised crime groups to import narcotics due to the high prices they can obtain for their product on Australian streets.”
“The AFP works closely with partners in the South-East Asian region to target organised crime groups seeking to profit from trafficking narcotics through and out of the region,” it added.
Methamphetamine seizures have increased significantly in recent years across the region. (ABC News: Graphic by Jarrod Fankhauser)
Drugs and violence in the Philippines
While the Philippines formally abolished the death penalty in 2006, President Rodrigo Duterte has presided over a so-called “war on drugs” under which thousands of alleged drug dealers have been shot by police and vigilantes.
Mr Duterte has previously said he would be “happy” to exterminate the country’s millions of drug addicts in a fashion comparable to how Adolf Hitler killed Jews.
Last month, the Philippine National Police released data claiming 5,526 “drug personalities” have been killed since the drug war began in July 2016.
Police spokeswoman Kim Molitas said the figure was proof the country is “winning the drug war”.
Rights groups have put the figure at more than double that, while opposition senators claimed earlier this year that more than 20,000 mostly-poor people have been slain in extrajudicial killings.
“It was when we started hearing of mostly poor people being brutally murdered on mere suspicion of being small-time drug users and peddlers while the big-time smugglers and drug lords went scot-free, that we started wondering about the direction this ‘drug war’ was taking,” said the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines in a statement provided to ABC.
“We fight only with the truth.”
In his recent state of the nation address, Mr Duterte reiterated his claim that “drug money” had funded the Islamic State-inspired Maute Group militants who laid waste to the city of Marawi in 2017.
The UN Human Rights Council resolution has called for greater scrutiny of Mr Duterte’s so-called war on drugs.
(AP: Bullit Marquez)
Sidney Jones, a leading expert on terrorism in South-East Asia, told the ABC that “there isn’t any basis for concluding the Mautes themselves were druglords.”
“The biggest source of funds for the siege came from cash and valuables looted from homes and banks as the militants took over,” she said.
The UN Human Rights Council last month voted to establish an independent investigation into Mr Duterte’s campaign against drugs, which the President’s office has deemed an “assault to sovereignty”.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, recently returned from Manila.
“Diplomats I met including from Australia were hopeful that the Government of the Philippines would cooperate with the UN Human Rights Council’s investigation of the drug war,” he told the ABC.
But Philippine authorities, likely, won’t comply with the investigation, as the drug war is Mr Duterte’s “personal vote bank”, Mr Robertson said.
A new approach in Malaysia and Thailand?
Thailand’s military-controlled Government this week announced the release of the first medicinal marijuana after it was legalised for medicinal purposes in early 2019.
“What you see is Thailand, correctly I think, changing its approach to drugs by looking at marijuana in a different way that they look at methamphetamines,” Mr Robertson said.
Thailand has legalised marijuana for medical use and research to help boost agricultural incomes. (Pexels: Aphiwat Chuangchoem )
Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan Government, meanwhile, which won a historic election last year on a progressive policy platform, has removed mandatory death penalty sentences for drug crimes.
Last month, its Health Minister Dzulkefly Ahmad announced that drug addiction and small-scale possession would be decriminalised, adding that “trafficking of drugs will undoubtedly remain a crime”.
Nevertheless, law enforcement is still taking a tough line.
Malaysia’s chief of police Abdul Hamid Bador told reporters this week that drug use in the country was at “breaking point”, suggesting that old habits die hard.
“If we do not tackle it I think it will reach the level of what we find in Colombia,” he said.