By Tom Allard
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Seizures of high-purity crystal methamphetamine have surged more than tenfold in Thailand over the past two years, statistics show, a stark indicator of the growth in industrial-scale production of the stimulant in neighboring Myanmar.
Thailand is a major trafficking route for crystal meth manufactured in Myanmar's Shan and Kachin states, where police say Asian organized crime groups have allied with local pro-government militias and armed rebels to set-up "super labs".
The drug syndicates have distributed the meth across the Asia-Pacific region, from South Korea to New Zealand and most countries in between, authorities say.
Some 18.4 tonnes of crystal meth, also known as ice, was seized in Thailand in 2018, according to preliminary statistics from the country's Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) reviewed by Reuters. The final data is expected to be released publicly next month. That is up from 5.2 tonnes in 2017 and 1.6 tonnes in 2016. It's more than treble the amount captured across all of Southeast Asia five years ago.
Myanmar's illicit labs also pump out tablets of meth mixed with caffeine, commonly know as "yaba", or crazy pill, in the Thai language. The tablets are popular with low-paid workers in gruelling jobs and poor recreational drug users across Southeast Asia.
Thai authorities seized 516 million meth tablets in 2018, more than double the previous year and four-and-a-half times the 114 million pills captured in 2016.
Niyom Termsrisuk, secretary general of the ONCB, told Reuters that, despite the rising seizures, prices for meth are falling, suggesting far more is eluding authorities than being stopped.
The average price of a meth tablet was 200 baht ($6.33) in 2013. The latest data, for 2017, showed a yaba pill can be bought for as little as 80 baht ($2.50), he said.
By flooding Thailand and other countries with meth, organized crime groups have "generated new users" by enticing them with lower prices, Niyom said. The users then become dependent on the highly addictive drug, creating a bigger market for the product.
GRAPHIC: Record high: meth seizures in Thailand - https://tmsnrt.rs/2Bm7uqr
"2018 A DISASTER"
Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle - which encompasses northern Myanmar and parts of Laos and Thailand - has long been a hub of illicit drug trafficking.
While opium cultivation and heroin refining has fallen in the past decade, methamphetamine production has more than filled the breach.
"It's hard to say anything other than 2018 was a disaster for the meth supply coming out of Myanmar," said Jeremy Douglas, the Asia representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Law enforcement agencies were overwhelmed while "health authorities are seriously under-resourced and have limited capacity to offer treatment", he added.
Regional police and analysts told Reuters that organized crime groups exploit the semi-lawless northern Myanmar borderlands, doing deals with the multitude of ethnic armed gangs and state-sponsored militias who control territory there.
The ONCB's Niyom said 8 tonnes of crystal meth had been captured en route to southern Thailand and the border with Malaysia in 2018. From there, "it was on its way to other markets", he said.
In the past year, police have intercepted boats laden with meth that left the Malaysian city of Penang. Syndicates also use "motherships" that pick up the drugs in the Andaman Sea and distribute them as far afield as Australia and New Zealand.
Meth from Myanmar has also been found smuggled in shipping containers in the Philippines and Malaysia.
According to regional anti-drugs police, who spoke on condition of anonymity, chemists are brought in from Taiwan and China to run the meth labs in Myanmar, while the precursors and lab equipment mostly come from China.
Last month, Myanmar's military intercepted state-of-the-art laboratory equipment near Muse, a city in Shan state on the Chinese border.
Regional police say the crystal meth produced in Myanmar is the purest they have seen.
According to an ONCB briefing document reviewed by Reuters, 99.92 percent of the crystal meth seized in Thailand in the first six months of 2018 was 90 percent pure or higher.
(Reporting by Tom Allard and Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by John Chalmers and Nick Macfie)