International AIDS Conference Puts Focus on Thai War on Drugs 7/9/04

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"They will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace. Who cares? They are destroying our country."
-- Interior Minister Wan Muhamad Nor Matha, referring to drug dealers, January 2003

"There is nothing under the sun which the Thai police cannot do. Because drug traders are ruthless to our children, so being ruthless back to them is not a bad thing... It may be necessary to have casualties... If there are deaths among traders, it's normal."
-- Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in a speech at Ratchapat Suandusit Hall, Bangkok, January 14, 2003

"Late on January 31, 2003, Boonchuay Unthong and Yupin Unthong were shot and killed as they returned home with their son, Jirasak, eight years old, from a local fair... Witnesses described seeing a man on the back of a motorcycle, wearing a ski mask, shoot Yupin, who was riding on the back of the family motorcycle. Boonchuay exhorted Jirasak to run away. Jirasak hid behind a fence and watched as the gunmen walked up to Boonchuay and executed him with a shot to the head. Convicted for a drug offense, Boonchuay had recently been released after 18 months in prison. It was subsequently discovered that Yupin and he had been placed on a government blacklist"
-- Human Rights Watch, "Not Enough Graves: The War on Drugs, HIV/AIDS, and Violations of Human Rights," released July 8, 2004

For nearly the past year-and-a-half, the Thai government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has engaged in a self-styled "war against drugs" that, according to national and international human rights groups, has left at least 3,000 dead and tens of thousands imprisoned ( Now, with the XV International AIDS Conference ( set to get underway Sunday in Bangkok, Thaksin and his drug war are getting some unwelcome scrutiny.

In a report issued Thursday, the internationally respected human right organization Human Rights Watch released a scathing denunciation of the Thai government, accusing it of tarnishing both its human rights and its AIDS prevention records as it prosecutes its war on drug users and sellers. The report cites fresh evidence of human rights abuses ranging from murder to beatings to intimidation to forced confessions and arbitrary arrests.

With an estimated 200,000 heroin users and hundreds of thousands of methamphetamine ("ya ba" or "crazy medicine") users, hard drug use contributes to both the AIDS epidemic and myriad other social problems in Thailand. The country's response under Prime Minister Thaksin has been repression and forced "treatment," which consists largely of being subjected to military-style boot camps.

"It's a scandal that Thailand is hosting the International AIDS Conference while it persecutes people at high risk of HIV," said Jonathan Cohen, a researcher with Human Rights Watch's HIV/AIDS Program and one of the report's authors. "There are proven methods of addressing drug addiction and HIV/AIDS, and murder is not one of them."

The criticism is aimed not at the AIDS conference but at the Thai government, Cohen was quick to point out. "We are not asking that the conference be moved, but that the host government not commit rampant human rights abuses against people with AIDS," he told DRCNet. "We are after the Thai government, and local activists can use this conference to raise issues with the government."

It is working, at least to a limited degree. "We met with Prime Minister Thaksin in a hour-long meeting today," said Karyn Kaplan, an advocacy volunteer for the Thai Drug Users' Network and International Advocacy Coordinator for the Thai AIDS Treatment Action Group. "The government has recently made a commitment to human rights and says it is now looking at drug users as patients, not criminals. But all that means is that their alternative to incarceration is compulsory treatment and, unfortunately, here that means not treatment but a military boot camp," she told DRCNet.

"Isn't it ironic that it takes an international AIDS conference for the prime minister to agree to meet with us?" asked Kaplan. "He has been in office for three years, but as chairman of the National AIDS Commission, he has never been to a meeting. Perhaps we can use this conference and the government's concern about its image to turn up the heat and turn his political statements into action."

Action is needed, said Cohen. "The Thai drug policy has very seriously tarnished Thailand's reputation for AIDS prevention," he said. "What is striking is the way the government is unable to apply the logic of condom distribution to injection drug use. Both are essentially harm reduction strategies. The government needs to recognize that just as there is illegal prostitution, so there is illegal drug use, and both need to be addressed. The Thai government showed courage and leadership in the AIDS pandemic of the 1990s, but that was a different administration, and that success has long since been overshadowed by Thailand's harsh drug policies. Drug users are one of the most important sources of new AIDS infections in Thailand; by 2005, 30% of new infections will be among injection drug users."

Although violence has receded from its peak levels of last year, Thai drug users are still marked people. "The environment remains one of fear and insecurity," said Kaplan.

"People are not coming out for services, but that's because the services aren't safe spaces for them either. There is also a lot of discrimination inside the methadone clinics, and a lot of drugs and risk in prison. Drug users have no human rights here."

Cohen, whose report provides excruciating detail on the abuses, agreed. "The government says drug dealers need to be punished, not drug users, but in practice, drug users are targeted for routine abuses of their human rights," he said. "In fact, we are very suspicious of that distinction between users and dealers in the first place, because it justifies grave human rights violations against people suspected of dealing drugs, up to and including extrajudicial executions."

Reliable numbers are hard to come by, said Cohen. "There are no good estimates for the number of people killed during last year's drug war," he said. "Because estimates from the government vary widely and because at one point the government banned the release of statistics on these deaths, we are not in a position to provide a precise estimate. The figure of 2,275 was widely reported for the first three months of the drug war, but because of the lack of investigations we don't know how many were drug war-related. We do know that the figure is substantially higher than from the same period the previous year."

But Cohen and Human Rights Watch stop short of directly accusing the Thai government of murder -- for now. "Very few forensic experts, human rights organizations, or independent organizations believe the government's denial that they are killing large numbers of people, but we will never know until it is transparently and independently investigated," said Cohen. "We are careful not to say that the government is directly responsible, but in fact the government is blocking investigations, and given the extraordinarily high number of killings that began in February 2003, there is more than enough reason to justify an investigation."

The abuses range from the life-ending to the mundane, Cohen said. "Drug users are very easy targets for police to fill arrest quotas. Police routinely target them for arrest based on the appearance of being high, track marks, or knowledge of previous run-ins," the human rights researcher continued. "They profile drug users, plant evidence on them, force them into signing false confessions and give them beatings. Drug users are then incarcerated in detention facilities where information about HIV is severely lacking and needle sharing is widespread. Methadone maintenance programs are severely limited and needle exchange programs are not available, violating drug users' rights. Despite the government's rhetorical commitment to treating drug users as patients, not criminals, these are the kind of everyday human rights violations suffered by drug users in Thailand."

Thai drug users, AIDS victims and their allies will use the opening day of the XV International AIDS Conference to stage a protest march demanding "action and accountability" in the fight against the disease. While many of the demands are global, march organizers the Thai Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (TNP+) and the community of Thai AIDS Activists are driving home local concerns.

"Access for all in Thailand is still not equitable; undocumented migrants, ethnic minorities denied citizenship, injecting drug users, prisoners and others still face non-medical exclusion criteria and social and economic barriers including health-care setting-based discrimination, which prevent them from accessing ARV," the groups said in a statement announcing the protest. "Activists in Thailand are demanding drug users worldwide get access to comprehensive prevention and treatment, not the threat of government sanctioned killing and unlawful detention."

The Human Rights Watch report, "Not Enough Graves: The War on Drugs, HIV/AIDS, and Violations of Human Rights," is available at online.

Visit for more information on AIDS activism at the Bangkok conference.

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Issue #345, 7/9/04 Editorial: Time for Congress to Get Real | In the Wake of Blakely: Federal Sentencing Chaos as Defense Attorneys, Prosecutors, Lawmakers Ponder How to Respond | House Votes Down Medical Marijuana Bill -- Election Year Politics, Organized Opposition Cited | International AIDS Conference Puts Focus on Thai War on Drugs | Making it Official: More Initiatives Move Toward November Ballot | ALERT: "Thank or Spank" Your Congressman for This Week's Medical Marijuana Vote | Newsbrief: Rep. Ron Paul Brings Pain Doctor Prosecution Issue to House | Newsbrief: US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Rejects DEA Motion for New Hemp Hearing | Newsbrief: Kansas Supreme Court Says Cut Methamphetamine Sentences | Newsbrief: Tommy Chong Walks Out of Prison | Newsbrief: Iranians Protest US, UK Blind Eye to Afghan Opium Crop | Newsbrief: United Arab Emirates Ponders First Step Toward Harm Reduction | Newsbrief: Head of National Drug Intelligence Center Fired | Newsbrief: Prohibition as a Marketing Tool -- Camel Ad Campaign Touts "Forbidden Fruit" Appeal | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: California Prisons "Dysfunctional," State Report Concludes | Movie Opening: Maria Full of Grace | Media Scan: New CSDP Ad -- Richard Paey and Rush Limbaugh | This Week in History | Psilocybin Cancer Research Study Still Seeking Participants | The Reformer's Calendar

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