According to experts, the security threats of organized and transnational crime have existed for many years in Southeast Asia and have even increased over the years because of globalization. But despite the fact that organized and transnational criminal activity in Southeast Asia is rampant, little study has been done to fully understand this phenomenon. In a study submitted to the United States’ National Institute of Justice, for instance, it was observed that Southeast Asian countries have little awareness about organized and transnational crimes and its impact on their national security. Among their major findings is that “there is little consensus among the Asian authorities on just what their main organized crime problems are” and that most Southeast Asian nations focus more on traditional organized crimes such as gambling, extortion, prostitution and the likes. There is also little acknowledgement regarding the connection between organized and transnational crimes and terrorism among Southeast Asian countries, which in turn impacts their national security policies. This paper would like to explore the common types of crimes perpetrated by organized and transnational criminal organization as well as the security challenges posed by these organizations, particularly in Southeast Asia. This paper will also try to determine the difference between the security threats posed by organized and transnational crimes as compared to the traditional or the realist security threat.
What is Organized and Transnational Crimes?
The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines organized crime as “any group having some manner of a formalized structure and whose primary objective is to obtain money through illegal activities”. Among its salient characteristics is the organized crime’s ability to make money through illegal activities using different unscrupulous methods such as bribery, extortion, and violence. Organized crime thrives primarily because they are being protected by corrupt public officials and law enforcers. These organizations may operate locally or within domestic borders of a country, but most often, these criminal organizations set up clandestine links and networks that cross national borders; making these organizations transnational. It should be noted that the word ‘transnational’ refers to “those networks, associations or interactions which cut across national societies, creating linkages between individuals, groups, organizations and communities with different nation-states”. According to scholars, a crime can be considered as transnational if it involves the crossing of national borders. The problem in dealing with transnational crime can be attributed to the nature of its operation and the law enforcement challenges it poses. Unlike international crime, which falls under international jurisdiction and can be prosecuted under international law, transnational crime is quite difficult to classify since it does not fall under national jurisdiction or in the international jurisdiction as well. The crossing of national borders and jurisdictions inherent in transnational criminal activity has serious implications for law enforcement because of the principle of sovereignty itself, which limits a nation’s action in pursuing transnational criminals outside its borders. As observed by scholars, “National boundaries make it difficult for law enforcement agencies to deal with transnational threats, apart from cooperation with law enforcement officials across the border”.
Types of Transnational Organized Crimes in Southeast Asia and their Prevalence
The existence of transnational organized crimes in Southeast Asia has greatly expanded over the years. According to observers, transnational organized crime is a lucrative business in Asia and the Pacific and is worth approximately $90 billion. This rapid expansion of criminal activity can also be attributed to the region’s rapid social and economic changes in the past decades. According to scholars, transnational organized crime is a persistent problem in Southeast Asia, primarily because there is a constant flow of people and goods within the region. As observed, “The areas of greatest growth in transnational criminality are regions in which there have been substantial increases in cross-border flows of people, money and commodities”. Many types of criminal activities have emerged in Southeast Asia, which pose a growing threat to the international and national security of the region. Among the most prevalent of these crimes are:
Human Trafficking and Smuggling. Human trafficking and human smuggling are interrelated global problem that has been detected in 118 countries between 2007 and 2010. In search for jobs beyond their borders, most Asians, particularly Asian women, have relied on human smugglers to get them to their destination. Unfortunately, a significant number of them are coerced into becoming sex workers. In the Philippines, for instance, there are many women who leave the country with an entertainer working visa that “ends up working in the sex industry abroad”. Evidently, one of the most common forms of human trafficking in Southeast Asia is for sexual exploitation. According to experts, Southeast Asia has one of the largest markets for sex tourism, which accounts for its huge number of sex workers; most of them have been trafficked and smuggled from different parts of the region. According to a United Nations’ estimate, the number of trafficked women that works in the sex industry of Southeast Asia is around 200,000.
Drug Trafficking. The illicit drug trade has a long history in the region and has not weakened despite efforts to stop this illegal trade. In China, for instance, a dramatic increase in the local and transnational drug syndicates has been observed. According to experts, the most significant volume of narcotics, especially of heroin, flows between Myanmar and China and is trafficked by individual couriers across the nations’ borders. Crystal methampethamine or commonly known as shabu, is also one of the most rampant narcotic drugs that is illegally trafficked between China and the Philippines.
Illicit Trade of Environmental Resources. Southeast Asia is also noted for the illegal trade of its wildlife and environmental resources. According to experts, prominent wildlife markets exist in Southeast Asian countries such as China, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia. Aside from the trading of endangered wildlife species, the region is also known for the illegal trade of wood products. As observed by experts, “illegal wood-based products originate largely in Southeast Asia, mainly Indonesia and Malaysia” and these activities exacerbate the deforestation of many rainforests in the region.
Contrabands. The illegal import and export of goods is also one of the most common criminal activities in the region. Experts believe that there is a constant flow of contraband goods that includes food products, electronics and even firearms and explosives that are being illegally shipped from one country to another. The prevalence of this activity can be attributed to the lack of efficient law enforcement especially in entry points. Corrupt customs and government officials are one of the major reasons why such activities continue to prosper.
Counterfeit Goods. Counterfeiting is a rampant occurrence in Southeast Asia, especially in China. According to UN experts, “75% of the counterfeit products seized worldwide from 2008 to 2010 were manufactured in East Asia, primarily China”.
Maritime Piracy. Piracy is an age-old problem that still persists in the regions of Southeast Asia, especially in the seas of Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia. According to experts, well-organized criminal groups who are better equipped than a country’s naval authorities “target relatively small vessels carrying products that can be sold with high profits on the black market”. Accordingly, the prevalence of poverty and unemployment in the region is one of the major factors why some people, especially local fishermen, engage in piracy.
Cybercrimes. Many fraudulent and illicit activities thrive through the use of the internet technology. In fact, the internet has been increasingly used by criminal organizations, especially in “facilitating distribution of and access to increasingly specialized markets in sexual services and pornographic material”. Internet scams, identity thefts and many other organized criminal activities has been increasingly perpetrated through the use of the internet technology.
Security Threats Posed by Transnational Organized Crimes
Transnational organized crimes pose an unconventional threat to the national and international security. The prevalence of organized crimes, for instance, can exacerbate corruption within the government and state institutions, which could weaken the governance of the afflicted country. According to experts, “It is very likely that criminal organizations and terrorists use corruption to breach the sovereignty of many states and then continue to employ it to distort domestic and international affairs”. Transnational organized crimes are also a threat to national, regional and international economics. The counterfeiting activities in the Southeast Asian regions, for instance, can pose a threat to the intellectual property rights and has a serious financial implication to the legitimate individuals, organizations and countries that produce them. For the same reason, transnational organized crimes are seen as a culprit for the uneven distribution of wealth. If left unchecked, transnational organized crimes can also exacerbate the depletion of natural resources. Most of all, transnational crimes is a threat to the individual’s security and safety. Drug trafficking, prostitution, gun running and other common organized crime activities are a direct threat to safety and security at an individual level.
Difference between Transnational Organized Crime Security Threats to Realist Security Threat
Traditional or realist security threats are often territorial in nature. As observed by scholars, realists “consider the principal actors in the international arena to be states, which are concerned with their own security, act in pursuit of their own national interests, and struggle for power”. The balance of power, for instance, is an important consideration in a realist’s security perspective. The prevailing thought in terms of realism, for instance, is that countries fear each other and that this mutual fear fuels their desire to seek power in order to “maximize their odds for surviving”. And so to address the security threat, the focus of realist or traditional security measures is to strengthen the country’s military power to serve as a deterrent and to protect its territorial interests. Traditional security threats are not uncommon in Southeast Asia. The territorial dispute regarding a group of islands in the Pacific, for instance, has caused instability in the region and have drawn many Southeast Asian states into the conflict. For the same reason, most Southeast Asian countries have embarked on military modernization programs that aim to balance the traditional threat posed by their neighbors. One of the apparent disparities between the security threats posed by transnational crime as compared to traditional security threats is that transnational crime does not pose a direct threat to a country’s territorial sovereignty, but nevertheless, it is also a potent cause of political and social instability. Unlike traditional security threats wherein the source of the threat is known, transnational organized crime operates in clandestine networks that are scattered domestically and abroad. This characteristic of transnational organized crime makes it difficult to address militarily. As observed by scholars, in addressing transnational security threats, “the use of force is a narrow response to a problem and not particularly useful against such dispersed threats”. In such cases wherein the threat is not concentrated in a particular area, the military, according to scholars, are often ineffective in combating such elements. What is needed is an increased multilateral cooperation between nations in order to effectively combat the clout of transnational organized crime.
Transnational organized crime is a major concern in Southeast Asia as well as anywhere else in the world. The presence of this organization in Southeast Asia poses a direct threat to the stability of the region, which also impacts the stability of the international community. These organizations, for instance, destabilize governments by infiltrating its legitimate institutions with corruption, making governments vulnerable to domestic and foreign threats. On the other hand, transnational criminal organizations also adversely impact the natural flow of the economy because it exacerbate the unregulated exchange of goods and the unscrupulous use of technology for their fraudulent activities. Furthermore, these organizations can also be used by terror groups to further their interests, especially in the smuggling of firearms, explosives and even the person themselves. Although it does not pose a direct threat to the sovereignty of a nation as what realist are concerned about, the security threat of transnational organized crime is, nevertheless, real and potent.
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