Early this year, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced an ambitious campaign to eradicate drugs in Thailand by April (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/273.html#southeastasia). While initially greeted with raised eyebrows as an unachievable goal, a mounting death toll since the campaign got underway on February 1 shows that the Thai government is deadly serious in its effort to wipe out the drug trade. According to the Thai Interior Ministry, 596 alleged drug dealers had been killed in the first two weeks of the campaign.
Thailand is one of the world's leading consumers of methamphetamine pills, which are smuggled by the hundreds of millions annually from factories operated by the United Wa State Army in neighboring Burma. According to the Thai government, approximately one million of the country's 62 million inhabitants are regular methamphetamine users.
Prime Minister Thaksin and police officials have said that the vast majority of the killings were the result of vendettas among drug traffickers and the rest were committed by police acting in self-defense, but few observers are buying that. Thai police have admitted killing at least a dozen "blacklisted" drug dealers in what they frankly refer to as a "no red tape" policy of state-sanctioned murder, the South China Morning Post reported.
Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have expressed "grave concern" about the rapid rise in apparent police murders of drug suspects. "It is getting worse by the day," Amnesty International's Thailand office director, Srirak Plipat, told the Asia Times. "The number of extrajudicial deaths is unusually high, but that does not mean there were no extrajudicial killings before during anti-drug crackdowns," he added. But the current crackdown is different, he said. "The language is new. The government is taking the cause very seriously, and has conveyed that it will use violence to pursue it."
Local human rights organizations are also raising the alarm. "This smacks of a great wrong being done," Somchai Homlaor, secretary-general of the regional human rights group Asia Forum, told the Morning Post.
Members of the Thai national human rights commission have also warned about the excesses of the campaign, saying it could usher in a new era of rule by "gun and goon." "This is supposed to be a democracy under the rule of law," commissioner Pradit Charoenthaithawee told the Morning Post. "But there is no law that covers the gunning down of people on the whim of the local authorities. This is a step back into the dark ages," said Pradit.
"This has become a land of fear. It is very ugly. Who is killing whom?" asked Jaran Ditapichai, another human rights commissioner.
Yet another human rights commissioner, Jaran Ditapichai, told the Guardian (London) last week that public support for the anti-drug campaign was diminishing as the rising death toll led to fears of creeping authoritarianism. "The public see death tolls rising, but they don't know who killed those people," he said.
On Saturday, the Bangkok Post weighed in with an editorial scoffing at the government's claims that the killings were the result of gang vendettas and police were obeying the law. "Such assurances ring hollow, given the poor records of the police, where scapegoats abound and unexplained deaths of prisoners in detention cells are all too frequent," it said. "If Mr. Thaksin is not careful we will be taken back to those dark days when suspects are presumed guilty until proven innocent."
The Thai government and its backer in the anti-drug struggle, the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNDCP), appear unconcerned, even defiant. "The government is firm in its policy," said Prime Minister Thaksin, responding to criticism last week. "Whoever wants to criticize, let them criticize. It's bandits killing bandits," he baldly claimed. Thaksin also appealed for understanding of the killings, which he characterized as "self-defense." "These officers do not deal drugs. I think it quite unusual that the drug dealers getting killed by the police are getting sympathy," he told the Bangkok Post.
And the UNDCP's East Asia and Pacific office head, Sandro Calvani, sounded downright supportive of the mass killings. "The Thai campaign makes sense," he told the Bangkok Post, because it is a broad campaign against an entrenched problem. "There is a sense of urgency," he added. When asked by the Post about the mass killings, Calvani gave lip service to the UN's support of human rights and the rule of law, but also noted that the UN is committed "to the rights of the children and youth to live in a drug-free environment."
If the Thai government is having no problems with the UNDCP, it is apparently much more skittish about another UN organization, the Office of the Secretary General. Hina Jilani, a representative of that office, was scheduled to arrive in Thailand at the end of this month to gather information about the situation facing human rights activists there, which would presumably include an interest in extrajudicial killings. The Thai government last week postponed that visit. A new trip has not been scheduled, according to the Bangkok Post.
Thailand is set to host the International Harm Reduction Association's (http://www.ihra.net) 2003 14th International Harm Reduction Conference, set for April 6-10 in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. At press time, IHRA had not responded to a DRCNet query about whether the conference is considering relocating or responding in some other fashion to the wave of state-sanctioned murders sweeping the country. The mass murder of drug suspects would appear to be incompatible with the principles of harm reduction.