In Thailand, Clamor for Investigation Grows as Killings of Drug Suspects Continue 2/28/03

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A nine-year-old boy may be able to achieve what human rights groups and international bodies have not: Bringing a halt to the reign of terror unleashed by the Thai government in the name of wiping out drug abuse in that country within three months. Since the beginning of February, as many as 900 suspected drug dealers have been killed in the crackdown. And while the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has throughout the month ignored a rising clamor against the killings, the shooting death on Monday of nine-year-old Chakkapan Srisard by drug police has crystallized opposition to the bloody purge and shocked even Thaksin.

Srisad was gunned down in a hail of bullets as his mother attempted to flee pursuing drug agents who had just arrested his father. According to reports in the Bangkok Post, his Tuesday funeral was a scene of "sadness and anger" at the government's unacknowledged "shoot to kill" policy directed at some 46,000 alleged methamphetamine dealers on a government black list. "The war on drugs is getting more violent every day," said Srisad's uncle Chalermpol Kerdrungruang. "Police kept shooting and shooting at the car. They wanted them all to die. Even a child was not spared," he told the Post.

"Officers are not authorized to simply kill people," said Prime Minister Thaksin, reacting to the shooting. "I will hold a meeting with senior officers to send a clear signal that whoever makes a mistake won't be protected." Indeed, the three police officers involved in killing the child have now been charged with manslaughter.

But while Thaksin reacted defensively to the Srisad killing, he has repeatedly reiterated his intention to move forward with the harsh antidrug campaign -- even in the face of international concern. On Wednesday, Asma Jahangir, special rapporteur to the UN Commission on Human Rights, issued a statement expressing "deep concern at reports of more than 100 deaths in Thailand in connection with a crackdown on the drug trade." Jahangir cited "allegations of excessive use of force resulting in extrajudicial killings." Thai officials should ensure that "the strict limits on the use of lethal force are followed rigorously and without exception."

Actually, Jahangir's numbers are low. According to Thai police officials this week, more than 900 have been killed since the campaign commenced on February 1, including young Srisad, a pregnant woman and a one-year-old baby.

"Never mind that the UN issued a statement of concern," Thaksin told reporters on Wednesday. "They are not condemning us, just showing concern. Actually, there are few cases of police killing suspects out of self-defense."

Thaksin may have inadvertently spoken the truth about self-defense killings. While police acknowledge killing a couple dozen of the more than 900 dead in self-defense, they blame the vast majority of the killings on battles between drug traffickers. But no one is buying that, especially since most victims appear to have been killed execution style and no one has been arrested -- except the unfortunate cops in the Srisad case.

Suspicions have also been raised by comments from government officials that suggest a "shoot to kill" policy exists. Interior Minister Wan Muhamed Nor Matha, for instance, said this week that drug dealers "might vanish without a trace." Wan Matha had earlier pledged to resign if he failed to eradicate drugs in Thailand by May 1.

"Mr. Wan Nor doesn't need to wait three months," Boonthan Tunsuthepverawongse of the Peace and Human Rights Resource Center told the Bangkok Post after the killing of young Srisad. "He should be accountable now for even one innocent life lost."

Tunsuthepverawongse represented only one of 11 Thai and regional organizations who demanded Tuesday that the government end its murderous crackdown. "Seeing reports about police shooting pregnant parents in front of their children, the murder of a woman eight months pregnant, and the latest killing of a nine-year-old, we can't help feeling that state officials have been overzealous and uncaring about innocent people," added Ticha na Nakorn of the Working Committee on Children, another member group in the newly formed coalition.

"This is a tragedy perpetrated by the state with no regard for human rights, a cruel justice that fails to distinguish decent people from villains," added Suriyasai Katasila, secretary general of the Campaign for Popular Democracy.

Interestingly, the comments from the coalition against the killings suggest that some killings are okay -- it is the excesses that have them disturbed. Indeed, polls conducted by the Bangkok Post show support for the anti-drug offensive at about 90%. At the same time, paradoxically, 70% of respondents feared that they, too, could be killed by police.

In remarks reported Sunday, Forum Asia secretary-general Somchai Hom-laor echoed those sentiments. He told the Thai newspaper the Nation (Bangkok) he was concerned that innocent people -- not just drug dealers -- had been killed. He also accused police of being behind the killings. "These were not just murders," he said. "People were handcuffed and massacred. It is almost impossible for ordinary citizens to execute such a mass action," he said.

Thailand will host the International Harm Reduction Association's (IHRA) annual conference in Chiang Mai on April 6 through 10. The association finds itself in a delicate position. In an e-mail to DRCNet received Thursday, IHRA wrote: "IHRA's position is that the urgent need to stem the spread of HIV and hepatitis among drug users in Asia as well as society at large will be best served by going ahead with the conference, which is cosponsored by the Ministry of Public Health. Countless lives depend on the implementation of evidence-based, cost effective and targeted interventions to address these problems in Thailand and the region."

In the meanwhile, drug users, sellers and uninvolved bystanders will have to dodge not only HIV, but Thai government bullets as well.

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