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The 'Shadowlands' Of Southeast Asia's Illicit Networks: Meth, Dancing Queens And More

Southeast Asia's economy is booming, increasing at an average of 5 percent per year. Thanks to an expanding consumer market, a young, robust workforce and increasing regional cooperation, it's only expected to grow.

But as it does, so do the region's black markets: drugs, human trafficking, animal trafficking. It's this world of underground organized crime that is the topic of journalist Patrick Winn's new book, Hello, Shadlowlands: Inside the Meth Fiefdoms, Rebel Hideouts and Bomb-Scarred Party Towns of Southeast Asia.

Based in Bangkok, Winn is the Asia correspondent for Public Radio International's The World and has spent a decade trying to understand how crime groups are allowed to thrive in a region where democracy is in retreat.

"When some people hear 'authoritarian rule,' they think squeaky-clean streets and no crime, but that's not the case," Winn tells NPR's Morning Edition.

In the book, Winn argues how and why "authoritarian, capitalist-style" governments are fertile ground for criminal networks to exist. He tells this story through drug fiefdoms in Myanmar that help fuel the world's largest methamphetamine trade, women selling illegal contraceptives in the Philippines and entertainers exported from North Korea to work in state-run restaurants across Southeast Asia — among others.

Winn argues that whether it's pushing hot-pink speed pills, snatching up people's pets to sell into Vietnam's dog meat market or taking up prostitution, people working outside the law "can oftentimes be quite relatable. They are all making rational choices in a rather extreme environment."

The following highlights from the interview are edited and condensed for clarity.

Journalist Patrick Winn.
/ Courtesy of Patrick Winn
Courtesy of Patrick Winn
Journalist Patrick Winn.


On how authoritarian rule allows crime to thrive

For the most part in Southeast Asia, this style of governance has become very popular, and I would call it sort of an authoritarian capitalist style where there's one-party rule. There's an interesting side effect to that where, when you have an authoritarian government, you have untouchable police. And when the police are untouchable, they have impunity and police chiefs can then, if they have an entrepreneurial streak, invite criminal networks to exist under that umbrella of impunity — a very fancy way of saying criminals pay them not to get arrested.

On the largest methamphetamine trade in the world

A lot of people might have it in their heads from shows like Breaking Bad that the world's largest meth trade is coming out of Mexico. That's not true anymore. It's happening in Southeast Asia, specifically in northern Myanmar up near the border with China.

Drug labs up there are churning out 2 [billion] to 6 billion methamphetamine tablets per year, and that's more than Starbucks sells cups of coffee worldwide every year. The scale is obscene and the only way that they're able to do that is because they are not getting cracked down upon by the ruling states. A lot of [these tablets] go into China and Thailand. And these drug lords are very clever, they're seeking out new ground. Now a lot are flowing into Bangladesh, a majority Islamic country on the other side of Myanmar. Seizures of meth tablets have gone up in the last 10 years in Bangladesh by 80,000 percent.

On Pyongyang's "dancing queens"

In Southeast Asia, there is a franchise of restaurants that is operated by the North Korean state. The appeal of the restaurant is not the food, it's the performers. These women, who have been raised since childhood to exalt the Kim regime in North Korea, some of them get outsourced to these restaurants and they perform songs. They're quite talented.

It's not prostitution at all. In fact, these women, by North Korean standards, are considered to have quite high status. One thing I wanted to do in writing this book is not to avoid moral complexity. I think it would be much easier for me to just say this is forced labor. So I actually went to South Korea, and I talked to a [North Korean] woman who wasn't working in a restaurant, but she was from the same arts and propaganda scene. And I said, "What do you think? Are they slaves?" She was terribly offended. Absolutely not. These people, they're the pride of their families. There are many, many North Koreans who would like to be in that position. So I try to leave it up to the reader.

On China's effect on Southeast Asia

It used to be that heroin sold on the streets of New York City was coming out of Myanmar or Burma. That's because the drug lords back in the '60s and '70s had to find a market, people who had a bunch of money that's disposable. China is soon to become the world's biggest economy and you have plenty of people there who can afford things. So the market for illegal things such as drugs is increasing as well. That means that [Southeast Asian drug dealers] don't have to go farther afield to sell their wares to sell their drugs.

China has this One Belt One Road plan, where they want to stitch together the world with highways and ports and airports and train lines so that commerce can move in these arteries and bring things to and from China. Well, when you have more infrastructure, that's great for a smuggler. He or she can now move things from A to B much, much more easily.

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Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.