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Notorious “Golden Triangle”: India’s Golden Opportunity

The Golden Triangle is an area of around 350,000 sq. kms. that overlaps the mountain regions of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Yunnan Province of China. The Golden Triangle is infamous for being one of the most extensive opium-producing areas in the world since the 1950s. Opium-based products from Myanmar, the second largest illicit opium-producing country in the world after Afghanistan, are merchandized to rest of the world through Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. Kunming, thus, serves as a key destination and transshipment point for the illicit opium trade whereas Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are the main transit corridors from Myanmar to Kunming. After Kunming, it reaches Hong Kong, Macau and then Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Nigeria, Australia, Europe, North America and so on.

India can take the opportunity to proselytize the conversion of illicit trade to a licit trade since the production of opium in the Golden Triangle has dropped dramatically by 29 per cent in 2006, bringing the total decline in the region since 1998 to 85 per cent. Laos and Thailand are almost free from opium and the Golden Triangle now produces only about five percent of the world’s opium, down from 33 percent in 1998. Though Myanmar remains the world’s second largest opium cultivator, Myanmar has been a declined from its high peak of opium poppy cultivation at 165,800 hectares in 1993 to only 27,700 hectares in 2007.

The region has already established trade relations through illicit trade routes and therefore, it is not necessary to take additional efforts to develop legitimate trade routes in the region. Along these routes through the Golden Triangle then, the strong demand for Indian products might be fulfilled to everyone’s benefit. These goods and commodities include Indian automobile components, iron, grains, rice, handlooms, bamboo and cane products, ginger, limestone, silk, pepper, textiles, cotton yarn and so on. In the other direction, Indian traders wish to import electronic goods, synthetic blankets, teak, gold and semi-precious stones from mainland Southeast Asia.

India can connect the region easily through the historic World War II-era Stilwell Road or Ledo Road and the Indo-Myanmar Moreh road both passing through whole region of the Golden Triangle. However, illicit trading was one of the major hindrances because of which India could not initiate trade in the right manner on these routes. The Ledo road, which was once a trade route for tea between India and China via Myanmar, is one of the six main routes which pass from Kunming to international markets. The Indo-Myanmar Road meanwhile overlaps with the Trans-Asian Highway. It passes through the capital of Manipur, Imphal to its largest international border trade area, Moreh and major cities of the Golden Triangle before reaching Kunming.

It is time to pay more attention urgently to India’s prospects and challenges since China is engaged in a big way in the construction of roads in the region. With help of China, the construction of roads in Kachin State of northern Myanmar is almost completed. The state governments in Northeast India have also called for reopening of the Stilwell Road to boost business with Southeast Asia.

Despite the prospects of economic and trade development, there are still challenges in the region. In Kachin State, contrary to UNODC reports, opium-cultivation has increased at an alarming rate. Developing advanced technologies for farming, the region augments opium yield per acre of cultivated land. It is again very difficult to elude the drug trade since the purveyors apply several methods to carry on their trade. Meanwhile, the region is not only the notorious for drug trafficking but as a training ground for insurgents of Northeast India and a major source of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and bird flu. The border between China and Myanmar in the Golden Triangle is a playground of casinos infamous for kidnappings, suicides and secret killings. The opening of trade routes would also likely create new confrontations. It will inspire more illegal migrants, promote transnational prostitution, better accessibility for insurgent groups, and increase vulnerability to environmental degradation.

India, surrounded by the world’s largest producers of illicit opium to its west and east, is also the largest producer of licit opium in the world for pharmaceutical purposes. India can therefore have a hand in dealing with this particular problem. It can also do much more for the region despite the various other challenges and push for collective action to deal with them. Placing restrictions on trade and trade routes is not the solution for illegal activities. The only way to solve the problem is to convert illicit trade to licit trade. It is time to begin thinking also of how to manage the impact of globalization if and when these trade routes are reopened.

*The article is written by Atom Sunil Singh

*The writer is a Research Intern, IPCS and can be reached at sunil@ipcs.org

*The article was earlier published February 2009.

*The article has been published with due permission from the Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies (IPCS).

*You may visit IPCS’s website at www.ipcs.org for further readings.

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