Partha Pratim Mazumder
The Golden Triangle is a region in Southeast Asia where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers. This region is known for its high production of opium, which is used to make heroin. The Golden Triangle is one of the world’s two largest opium-producing regions, along with the Golden Crescent in Afghanistan. Heroin became a major component of the opium trade after World War II, and the demand for heroin by United States troops during the Vietnam War helped transform the opium economy of the Golden Triangle into a large and profitable one. Drug trafficking now influences every aspect of politics in the region. Manipur has had a drug problem for decades, thanks to an ancient trade route that connects it to Southeast Asia and, therefore, to the infamous Golden Triangle, not too far away from its eastern border. In geographical terms, this is a tri-junction where the Mekong River, at a confluence point, splits the landmasses of three nations: Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos. Beginning in the 1970s, this became the focal point of an international network of illegal opium and heroin trades.
Manipur has always been a natural and major transit route for Golden Triangle drugs. Since the late 1970s, the state has had more than its fair share of drug addiction problems and related scourges, such as HIV/AIDS infection, spread mainly through needle-sharing among heroin addicts. The problem became compounded by high levels of youth frustration, leading them to choose political radicalization and take the path of insurgency or fall to the lure of drugs and alcohol. In the last few years, the problem has acquired another dimension. From just being a transit route and suffering its collateral damages, today a new culture of illegal poppy cultivation has arrived in a big way in its hills. Manipur is therefore poised to also become a source and not just a route for this international drug trafficking network. During 2022–23, the Manipur Police registered 620 cases under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, leading to 724 arrests, of which 474 people are in judicial custody and 250 were released on bail, according to the state government.
The illicit drug trade along the Golden Triangle has serious implications for Northeast India. It invites the danger of a rapid flow of illicit drugs and arms. Without effective drug control mechanisms that guarantee that illicit trade is kept to a minimum, the adverse consequences of illicit drugs on Northeastern society could have long-term negative effects. India should establish institutional mechanisms with China, Myanmar, and Thailand to counter illicit trafficking. There must be a long-term Indian strategy to limit drug trafficking, address the social impact of drug addiction, spread the word about the ill effects of drug abuse in schools, and establish efficient rehabilitation centres in the HIV and drug zones in Northeast India. There is perhaps no other way to address the life-threatening effects of drug addiction and HIV, which are currently destroying youths in Northeast India.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) showed that opium poppy cultivation has surged by 33 percent in the Golden Triangle, and opium yields have the potential to burgeon by 88 percent. In 2022, 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) of opium poppies were cultivated in Myanmar, with an estimated potential opium yield of almost 800 metric tonnes. Myanmar’s overall illicit opiate economy is now estimated to be worth $2 billion, while the regional market for heroin is valued at a staggering $10 billion, according to the UN. Meanwhile, in Thailand, the Bangkok Post reported that 12,000 cannabis sprouts were planted in Chiang Mai in the first industrial-scale medical cannabis-making facility in the Asean region. Many of the drug syndicates have switched to lab-produced crystal meth and other synthetic highs. Clearly, the great drug game continues to be in play.
The government must focus on the development of the people, enhance their skills, and provide them with jobs and other related necessities in their lives. Along with stringent laws for illegal drugs and their associated activities, all sections of society, including the local population, civil society organisations, political class, various student unions, and Meira Paibi/Women Torch Bearers of Manipur, should come together and fight against this societal evil. In addition, the Indo-Myanmar border needs to be checked since the source of the influx of illegal drugs in the state comes from this porous border. Revision of the Free Movement Regime is required for the effective functioning of the Integrated Check Post and Land Custom Station at the border. Otherwise, a new Golden Triangle will emerge in India’s northeast region, reigniting the dormant insurgency with drug-induced finances. Lastly, Manipur, a potential pivot for India’s Act East policy connecting India with SEA nations, will become an insurmountable security challenge if the problem of drug trafficking is not tackled seriously.