In a new wave of repression aimed at drug users, the government of Thailand has begun rounding up suspected "drug addicts" to be forced into "rehabilitation centers." That has health, human rights, and harm reduction groups expressing grave concerns, especially given previous Thai pogroms against drug users, like that in 2003, when tens of thousands were rounded up and more than 2,000 killed by police in summary executions.
"During 20-27 February, 2011, drug abusers in Bangkok will be brought to the rehabilitation centers to get clean," the notice continued. "There will be those who are encouraged to receive treatment on their freewill and those who will be forced against their will. A rehabilitation camp will be open for addicts elsewhere in Thailand where a rehab center is scarce."
The announcement also said staff training would be carried out and a location for a "makeshift rehab center for drug addicts" will be selected. Chillingly, it added that "their names will be recorded in the database specifically designed for easy tracking and providing updates on their progress in the future."
The roundup has already begun in Bangkok, according to Karyn Kaplan of the Thai AIDS Treatment Action Group (TTAG). "Yes, people are being arrested right now," she said. "The police have quotas, they do this every few months, and this is just another excuse to round people up again. Even in our own small network of people who use drugs, people have been arrested, even workers at our harm reduction center."
While the Thai government officially embraces harm reduction principles -- it adopted harm reduction as a national strategy last fall -- it schizophrenically continues its crackdowns on drug users and sends them to "treatment centers" not worthy of the name.
"We don't call them treatment centers, because they aren't run by people who know how to treat people," said Kaplan. "They were originally set up because of prison overcrowding, but even though they have a policy that says drug users are patients, not criminals, they still use the police to sweep the streets and throw people into the system. But then the system says there is no room in prison, send them to the camps. The camps are in military bases and run by the military, and they aren't trained for that. The military is just housing them, and there are beatings and forced labor for no money. There is no due process," she said.
It is as if the Thai government's left hand doesn't know what its right hand is doing, said Kaplan. "The government at least pays lip service to harm reduction, but the Ministry of the Interior is not talking to the Narcotics Control Board, which sponsors the harm reduction policy," she said. "We have gotten unofficial statements from senior officials inside the Public Health Ministry saying they are going to speak with the board and the Interior Ministry about what Thailand might do more effectively."
In the mean time, the roundups continue.
The threat of the mass roundup of suspected drug users has led a coalition of Thai and international health, harm reduction, and human rights organizations to publicly air their fears that it will trample on human rights and could lead to the widespread abuses of drug users seen in other Thai anti-drug campaigns.
"These plans for mass detention and forced treatment raise considerable human rights concerns, especially given Thailand’s history of nationwide punitive and ineffective anti-drug campaigns," they said in an open letter to the Thai government. "There is no way for the government to implement a campaign to forcibly 'treat' tens of thousands of people who use drugs without widespread human rights abuses taking place."
Groups signing on to the letter include the TTAG, the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA), the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), the International Harm Reduction Program of the Open Society Institute, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, and the International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD).
"The mandatory rounding up and detention of people who use illicit drugs for the purpose of enforced treatment is not only a violation of their human rights, it's a violation of common sense -- enforced detention doesn't work," said INPUD's Jude Byrne. "Never has, never will! Communities need to look to the reason people are using drugs. Stop the systemic violence against the poor, minorities, people of different sexual persuasion and the unemployed. Rounding up the most marginalized people in the community will do nothing except provide jobs for the police and the people who run the detention centers. It will also drive INPUD's community underground so they are not able to access harm reduction information or equipment where it is available. The transmission of HIV and Hep C among the injecting drug using community will soar, and that is the real crime, not the use of drugs."
"This crackdown flies in the face of Thailand’s 2002 policy, which states that people who use drugs should be treated as patients, not criminals. There is nothing therapeutic about rounding up thousands of drug users and forcing them into military boot camps that fail to provide appropriate services and support," said Paisan Suwannawong, TTAG executive director and co-founder of the Thai Drug Users' Network.
While the Thai government refers to "drug addicts," its plans appear to include any drug users. Under the current plan, "occasional" users will be detained for one week, "continuous" users for two weeks, and those showing signs of drug dependence for 6 1/2 weeks (45 days).
"There are many reasons to be worried," said IHRA executive director Rick Lines. "Due process guarantees have been thrown out the window. What is the legal basis for mass detention? There are numerous examples of how forced detention in the name of drug dependence 'treatment' can lead to human rights violations and breaches of accepted principles of medical ethics," he continued. "What is more, many who do not need any form of drug dependence treatment will be herded into detention centers. Where is the clinical assessment?" he asked.
The activists also expressed concern about the temporary detention centers that will be set up outside Bangkok. They feared they would be operated not by health workers, but by police or soldiers, they said.
"We are profoundly concerned that these centers may be run by public security forces such as the police or paramilitary civil-defense organizations" said Kaplan. "It is dangerous and extremely disheartening given recent progress made in the country on injecting drug use and HIV. This can only serve to undermine those efforts in the long term. The immediate concern, however, is for the safety and well-being of those targeted."
But the medium term goal is to persuade the Thai government to embrace not merely the rhetoric of harm reduction, but the practice. That is going to take continuing pressure on the government, and the United Nations needs to step up, said Kaplan.
"We need more high-level action to push the government over to harm reduction," she said. "The World Health Organization and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime don't listen to civil society, so we need governments to step up. It is very important and progressive that Thailand is talking harm reduction, but to actually do it, they need a lot of help."