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The Golden Triangle, a Heroin production region

The Golden Triangle is one of Asia's two main illicit opium-producing areas. It is an area of around 350,000 square kilometres that overlaps the mountains of four countries of Southeast Asia: Myanmarmarker (Burmamarker), Vietnammarker, Laosmarker, and Thailandmarker. (Other interpretations of the Golden Triangle also include a section of Yunnan Provincemarker, Chinamarker.) Along with Afghanistanmarker in the Golden Crescent and Pakistan, it has been one of the most extensive opium-producing areas of Asia and of the world since the 1950s. The Golden Triangle also designates the confluence of the Ruak Rivermarker and the Mekong river, since the term has been appropriated by the Thai tourist industry to describe the nearby junction of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.

Opium and morphine base produced in northeastern Burma are transported by horse and donkey caravans to refineries along the Thailand–Burma border for conversion to heroin and heroin base. Most of the finished products are shipped across the border into various towns in North Thailand and down to Bangkokmarker for further distribution to international markets. In the past major Thai Chinese and Burmese Chinese traffickers in Bangkok have controlled much of the foreign sales and movement of Southeast Asian heroin from Thailand, but a combination of law enforcement pressure, publicity and a regional drought has significantly reduced their role. As a consequence, many less-predominant traffickers in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand now control smaller quantities of the heroin going to international markets.

Heroin from Southeast Asia is most frequently brought to the United Statesmarker by couriers, typically Thai and U.S. nationals and Hong Kongmarker Chinese, traveling on commercial airlines. Californiamarker and Hawaiimarker are the primary U.S. entry points for Golden Triangle heroin, but small percentages of the drug are trafficked into New York Citymarker and Washington, D.C.marker While Southeast Asian groups have had success in trafficking heroin to the United States, they initially had difficulty arranging street level distribution. However, with the incarceration of Asian traffickers in American prisons during the 1970s, contacts between Asian and American prisoners developed. These contacts have allowed Southeast Asian traffickers access to individuals and organizations distributing heroin at the retail level.

In recent years, the production has shifted to Yaba and other forms of methamphetamine, including for export to the United States.

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Burma (Myanmar) is the world's second largest producer of illicit opium, after Afghanistanmarker (potential production in 1996—1,090 metric tonnes, down 35 percent due to drought; cultivation in 1999—895 km2, a 31% decline from 1998). The surrender of drug warlord Khun Sa's Mong Tai Army in January 1996 was hailed by Yangonmarker as a major counternarcotics success, but lack of government will and agility to take on major narcotrafficking groups and lack of serious commitment against money laundering continues to hinder the overall antidrug effort. Burma is becoming a major source of methamphetamine for regional consumption. Most of the tribespeople who are growing the opium poppy are living under the poverty line.

Burmamarker is a circle of the Golden Triangle of opium production. Most of the world's heroin came from the Golden Triangle, including Burma, until the early 21st century (when Afghanistan became the world's largest producer).

In 1996 the United States Embassy in Rangoon released a "Country Commercial Guide", which states "Exports of opiates alone appear to be worth about as much as all legal exports." It goes on to say that investments in infrastructure and hotels are coming from major opiate-growing and opiate-exporting organizations and from those with close ties to these organizations.

A four-year investigation concluded that Burma's national company Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) was "the main channel for laundering the revenues of heroin produced and exported under the control of the Burmese army." In a business deal signed with the French oil giant Total in 1992, and later joined by Unocal, MOGE received a payment of $15 million. "Despite the fact that MOGE has no assets besides the limited installments of its foreign partners and makes no profit, and that the Burmese state never had the capacity to allocate any currency credit to MOGE, the Singaporemarker bank accounts of this company have seen the transfer of hundreds of millions of US dollars," reports Casanier. According to a confidential MOGE file reviewed by the investigators, funds exceeding $60 million and originating from Burma's most renowned drug lord, Khun Sa, were channeled through the company. "Drug money is irrigating every economic activity in Burma, and big foreign partners are also seen by the SLORC as big shields for money laundering." Banks in Rangoon offered money laundering for a 40% commission.

The main player in the country's drug market is the United Wa State Army, ethnic fighters who control areas along the country's eastern border with Thailand, part of the infamous Golden Triangle. The Wa army, an ally of Burma's ruling military junta, was once the militant arm of the Beijing-backed Burmese Communist Party. Burma has been a significant cog in the transnational drug trade since World War II.

Poppy cultivation in the country decreased more than 80 percent from 1998 to 2006 following an eradication campaign in the Golden Triangle. Officials with the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime say opium poppy farming is now expanding. The number of hectares used to grow the crops increased 29% in 2007. A United Nations report cites corruption, poverty and a lack of government control as causes for the jump.

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