In a birthday present to the king, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra Wednesday declared Thailand "drug free" -- or pretty darn close to it, anyway. The long-awaited announcement comes on the heels of a year-long anti-drug campaign that has seen more than 2,700 people killed, tens of thousands arrested, and hundreds of thousands more sentenced to "drug treatment camps." (Oddly enough, Thai security forces reported seizing only $95,000 in drug-related assets over the course of the year.) While Thaksin, the US government, and a significant section of Thai public opinion are heralding the "victory," human rights organizations and other observers are decrying the abuses that accompanied the campaign.
The "final push" for the anti-drug campaign came last week, as some 3,000 Thai security forces conducted massive raids on poor Bangkok neighborhoods, searching some 600 structures and arresting 121 people. In the meantime, the government announced it was sending more army troops to the Burmese border and beginning electronic surveillance there in an effort to suppress smuggling.
In the late 1990s and into this decade, Thailand had become a leading consumer of methamphetamines manufactured in Burma by the United Wa States Army and imported in pill form by the ton. Use and abuse of "ya ba," or "crazy medicine," spread across class and geographic lines until it supplanted the use of opium and heroin as the nation's identified number-one drug problem. In February, Thaksin kicked off his campaign to make the country "drug free." Now it's official.
"We are now in a position to declare that drugs, which formerly were a big danger to our nation, can no longer hurt us," Thaksin told a Bangkok news conference as he declared victory. But even as he claimed success, he acknowledged that he could not eradicate drugs. "No country will be able to completely stamp out drugs from its society," Thaksin added. Still, he said, "Many Thai people now have their sons and daughters back."
Although not the families of the more than 2,700 people killed during the campaign. Human rights groups, both in Thailand and internationally, blame Thai government death squads for the majority of those killings, but Thaksin and his officials have denied it, claiming instead that the victims died in internecine gang wars.
"During the anti-drugs campaign launched by the government from 1 February to 30 April 2003, the Thai Government appeared to condone killings of drug suspects by unknown assailants as one method of fighting the "drugs war," concluded Amnesty International in a report released in October. "According to official statements, 2,245 drug suspects were killed during the three month campaign. However, the government has failed to initiate independent, impartial, effective and prompt investigations into these killings, and as a result those found responsible have not been known to have been brought to justice."
One example of what Amnesty was talking about is the case of Somjit Kuanyuyen, who learned on February 20 she was on a police blacklist of drug users and reported to her local police station. After signing a paper and being reassured by police she was safe, she returned home. "Four unidentified men in a one-ton pickup truck with darkened windows drove up to her house and shot her seven times in front of her seven-year-old granddaughter and her seven-months pregnant daughter," Amnesty reported.
Human Rights Watch has also expressed deep concerns about human rights in the Thai drug war. Most recently, in October the watchdog group complained that the government's policies endangered a newly-announced AIDS reduction grant. "The Thai government has consistently refused to support such services," wrote Human Rights Watch. "Worse, it has engaged in a brutal crackdown against people suspected of smuggling and dealing drugs, resulting in the unexplained killings of several thousand drug dealers since February. Research by Human Rights Watch shows that anti-drug crackdowns can increase drug users' chances of HIV infection. As with other populations at high risk of infection, such as sex workers and men who have sex with men, health experts fear that police brutality can push drug users into hiding and drive them from HIV prevention services."
"Violent crackdowns won't solve Thailand's drug problem, but they will fuel its AIDS epidemic," said Joanne Csete, director of the HIV/AIDS and Human Rights program at Human Rights Watch. "Preventing HIV requires working respectfully with drug users, not trampling on their human rights."
But that is just what the Thai government has been doing, National Human Rights Commissioner Jaran Ditthapichai, who received death threats earlier this year after denouncing the killings of suspected drug traders, told DRCNet. The targeted population is so frightened that it does not even complain much, he said. "We have only received a small number of complaints from the relatives of those killed," said Jaran. "It is because the families are frightened by the brutal killings and afraid of the police. They do not dare complain to us or other organizations. They think they may be in danger," he said.
The commission, a governmental body, had interviewed victims and relatives, as well as police and drug suppression officers and issued its report to the government, Jaran said. "Now we are waiting for a response."
And while the rate of killing has declined in this last phase of Thailand's drug war, said Jaran, the human rights situation remains miserable. "The situation is worse now," he explained. "People's rights not only to life, but their freedom of assembly and their right to a fair trial are at stake," he said.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration official in charge in Thailand wasn't worried about human rights. Last week, as he witnessed a bonfire of seized ya-ba pills, William Snipes, Southeast Asia regional DEA director told reporters so far so good, but cautioned that victory could be fleeting. "Whether that's a lasting effect, we'll have to wait and see. Temporarily, we look at it as successful," he said.
"It has been successful, if you measure success by the price and availability of methamphetamine," said Allen Hicken of the University of Michigan's Southeast Asian Studies Center. "The price has skyrocketed, if you can find the stuff at all," he told DRCNet.
"Now it is very difficult to find speed tablets where they used to be on sale," agreed Nualnoi Treerat, professor of political economy at Bangkok's Clulalongkorn University. "Those who have some may have already buried or destroyed them out of fear [of violent measures by the state]. If any are still available, the prices have risen [almost ten-fold]." But can the policy be called a success? "Perhaps, yes, if we don't think human rights is a problem," she said in an interview with the Nation (Bangkok). "To tackle the drugs problem is supposedly to increase human security. But if the means are not just, they could create an atmosphere of fear, and such fear of violence could in return become a threat to human security," she said.
Despite the human rights abuses, Thaksin and his government have broad popular support for the crackdown, according to Thai pollsters. "It is true," said commissioner Jaran. "Almost all Thai people support the violent policy because for the past ten years the drug was everywhere, millions of addicts, and even social groups like teachers and monks were involved with the drug trade. Thai people see drug traffickers as bad men, the enemy of the nation, and they should be killed," Jaran explained. "The human rights activists and the commission were criticized as people who do not love the nation and who indirectly help the gangsters."
"The Thais aren't any different from the Americans in this regard," said Hicken. "This is a law and order campaign. People generally regret the killings, but after all, they say, it is the drug dealers who are being killed. "And Thaksin is winning points: Drugs have been a scourge, and here is a politician who has done something about it."
Visit http://www.nhrc.or.th/anti-drugs%20cases.pdf to read drug war complaints to the Thai National Human Rights Commission.
Visit http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGASA390082003?open&of=ENG-THA to read Amnesty International's October report.
Visit http://www.hrw.org/press/2003/10/thailand103103.htm to read the Human Rights Watch HIV/human rights report.