A pile of seized illegal drugs burns during a destruction ceremony to mark the UN International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking last year / © AFP
Asian drug trafficking networks are increasingly using sea routes to smuggle methamphetamines out of Myanmar and ramping up ketamine production as they seek to expand their business, the UN said Friday.
Meth from coup-hit Myanmar's northeastern Shan state -- the regional epicentre for the drug's production -- is being smuggled by boats to avoid tighter patrols on land routes through China and Thailand, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in an annual report.
The border region between Myanmar, Laos and Thailand has long been a hotbed of illegal drug production and trafficking, particularly of meth and opium.
Increased drug patrols in China's southwestern Yunnan province and along Thailand's border with Myanmar led to a drop in meth seizures by Chinese and Thai authorities in 2022 as drug traffickers turned to alternative maritime routes.
"Traffickers have continued to ship large volumes through Laos and northern Thailand, but at the same time they have pushed significant supply through central Myanmar to the Andaman Sea where it seems few were looking," UNODC regional representative Jeremy Douglas said.
The report flagged high volumes of Myanmar-made meth heading into Bangladesh and India.
Health experts say use of the drug can lead to paranoia, hallucinations and violent behaviour and those withdrawing can experience psychosis.
Police across East and South East Asia seized nearly 151 tonnes of methamphetamines in 2022, down from the record of 172 tonnes set in 2021.
Wholesale and street prices for meth across the region fell or remained at record lows in 2022.
"The most powerful regional trafficking networks are able to operate with a high degree of certainty they can and will not be stopped," the UN report said.
Researchers also pointed to evidence that drug smuggling networks are looking to diversify what they sell.
In 2022, authorities across the region seized a record 27.4 tonnes of ketamine, an anaesthetic misused as a recreational party drug -- up 167 percent on 2021.
Nearly half was netted in Cambodia, which has emerged as a key production centre for ketamine, with 13 "highly sophisticated" laboratories found last year.
"The discovery of a series of industrial-scale clandestine ketamine laboratories, processing warehouses, and storage facilities across the country has set off alarm bells in the region," the report said.
The report also noted a massive rise in seizures of the chemicals needed to make ketamine.
Large mixed shipments of meth and ketamine indicate organised crime groups are trying to push the two drugs as a package to increase demand for the anaesthetic, according to the report.