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By Hunter Marston
Over the last year, concerns about Southeast Asia’s increasingly powerful autocrats have dominated headlines and commentary about the region. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, though democratically elected, has imprisoned his critics, including even senators. Myanmar’s military has expelled hundreds of thousands of minority Rohingya Muslims through targeted violence, while the Thai junta has clung to power despite promises of elections to come. Meanwhile, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen this year won an unfree and unfair election in which the main opposition party was banned. Yet behind these headlines of creeping authoritarianism, Southeast Asian states often exhibit weak, centralized state power in many respects. Indeed, illegal economies in Southeast Asia, including narcotics, prostitution, and human trafficking, among other industries, thrive in the borderlands and frontier towns of Southeast Asia. Rather than imposing law and order, states are often either complicit in these crimes networks or lack the power to stop them.
In his new book Hello, Shadowlands: Inside the Meth Fiefdoms, Rebel Hideouts and Bomb-Scarred Party Towns of Southeast Asia, Patrick Winn, Asia correspondent with Public Radio International and a veteran Southeast Asia journalist, analyzes the flourishing crime world on the periphery of state power in Southeast Asia (i.e., the “shadowlands”) and examines the “rational, complex actors” who engage in the sex and drug industries, among other illicit activities.
Winn argues that these illegal economies flourish, in some place in Southeast Asia, due to the absence of powerful state institutions—but also that, where necessary, criminal networks cooperate with state authorities and security forces. Further facilitating these powerful networks, according to Winn, is the rising influence of Chinese authoritarianism and the declining power of the United States, the combination of which he sees as “a blessing for organized crime.” China’s enormous middle class, he argues, guarantees a steady stream of consumers with a rising demand for illicit exports, while the Chinese government’s preference for noninterference in neighbors’ internal affairs and disinterest in human rights dictate that Beijing will not restrict illegal trade flows. China’s expanding influence occurs as U.S. power recedes, and Southeast Asia is exhibiting a tilt toward authoritarian governance, although he notes that the United States’ approach to many of these illegal economies in Southeast Asia has often been ineffective in the past too.
From the start, Winn offers vivid characters and a human dimension, making the book a compelling read. Winn’s first chapter, for instance, situates the reader in a den of methamphetamine addicts in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State, illustrating their addiction while also examining the broader reasons why the methamphetamine trade has flourished in northern and northeastern Myanmar.
He moves on to focus on the lawlessness of Myanmar’s frontier towns, which facilitate a wide range of illegal trade. Winn illustrates how the flow of drugs and weapons persists outside the authority of Myanmar’s central authority, in areas controlled by ethnic Kachin militia for instance. Where the central government is present, it is unable or uninterested to enforce antidrug policies, while army officers who control key checkpoints often benefit from the drug trade by accepting bribes, and the military face allegations of a larger role in the drug trade.
Winn next shifts his focus to the Philippines. Rather than just explore the drug war under President Rodrigo Duterte, Winn opts for a different angle. He tells the story of albularyo, herbal practitioners who take great risks to offer both actual drugs—albeit ones that are illegal in the Philippines and are brought in clandestinely, due to the government’s inability to police these shipments—that produce medical abortions, as well as folk remedies that supposedly induce abortions. Abortion is illegal in the Philippines, and the Catholic Church wields significant moral and political power in the country. The Duterte administration, which has pushed for broader access to birth control, has often clashed with the church, although Duterte has not pushed to legalize abortion.
Facing desperate circumstances, albularyo remain popular among women with no legal access to abortion. Winn’s portrait of Karen, a woman barely making ends meet who seeks an herbal practitioner to prevent her fourth pregnancy, touches on both drug wars: the first on the modern meth trade; the other against the traditional healers who offer illicit medical abortions, many of which can be incredibly damaging to the health of the mother and child. During times where her income ran low, Karen started selling meth to make enough money to feed her children. When she heard of Duterte’s proposed amnesty for drug users and sellers who turned themselves in to authorities, she submitted her information to the government. But rather than a blanket pardon, those who took Duterte at his word learned that they were now on a list of targets for police and vigilantes enforcing the president’s drug war. Karen has narrowly dodged visitors to her home and is living on the run for fear of her life, unable to see her children.
After examining how the North Korean regime uses restaurants across Southeast Asia to bring in hard currency for the totalitarian state, Winn’s tour of the growing “shadowlands” of Southeast Asia takes him to southern Thailand. In the deep south, near the Malaysian border, there is a significant sex industry—despite an ongoing separatist insurgency that often has directly targeted commercial sex workers, as well as soldiers, teachers, and anyone the insurgents see as somehow linked to or complicit in the Thai state. The insurgency, which dates back more than fifteen years in its current iteration, has killed more than 6,500 people in its current period. Insurgents often target bars and other sites in the southern border towns where sex workers operate. While prostitution is technically illegal in Thailand, many police are aware of and tolerate sex work taking place within certain bars because they are able to extract bribes. Police corruption and the heavy security presence of Thai armed forces in the south further inflame local resentment.
In his afterword, Winn offers several policy recommendations designed to combat the growing illegal economy in various Southeast Asian states. These include: increase police officers’ salaries; decriminalize sex work; legalize narcotics (including meth); and create powerful anticorruption commissions to hold authorities to account and strengthen rule of law. Such commissions have demonstrated some notable results in Indonesia, for instance, whose corruption eradication commission has led to the arrest of high-profile politicians.
Winn astutely points to inherent contradictions in US foreign policy that potentially facilitate illegal economies in Southeast Asia: spending billions on a global war on drugs while slashing overseas development assistance, for instance. Winn’s argument that Southeast Asian crime syndicates make rational choices and operate by certain codes of conduct holds up under scrutiny. But his broader geopolitical conclusions—that China’s rise is as preordained as the United States’ decline—come off as less supported by evidence.
Winn is on firmer footing in his quest to understand the people he interviews in the shadowlands. His intimate portrait of the everyday criminals who skirt the law and live in the shadows adds an important human dimension to a still widely misunderstood domain of the global economy and Southeast Asia’s rapidly changing societies.
Hunter Marston (@hmarston4) is a Washington, DC–based Southeast Asia analyst and coauthor of a chapter in the forthcoming volume Asia’s Quest for Balance: China's Rise and Balancing in the Indo-Pacific (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).