The government of Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat announced a new anti-drug offensive last week aimed at a resurgent methamphetamine market and an enduring market in opium and heroin. Somchai said the new 90-day offensive could be seen as a continuation of the 2003 anti-drug campaign led by then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
2003 protest at Thai embassy, DRCNet's David Guard in foreground
A Thai government commission
investigating Thaksin's war "to make Thailand drug-free" found that nearly 3,000 people were killed, many of them not involved in the drug trade. While no criminal convictions have been handed down, it is widely assumed that most of those killed were executed by police anti-drug death squads.
Somchai said his government would take measures to prevent more killings, but like his predecessor, tried to pin the killings on "slayings among suspected drug dealers," not the extrajudicial execution of drug dealers. That isn't exactly building confidence among Thai drug users and sellers or among the human rights community, which strongly criticized Thailand over the 2003 murder spree.
"The prime minister says that this time around killings will not be tolerated, but the government said the same thing last time," said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in a Wednesday news release warning that more abuses could lie ahead. "Somchai's credibility is at stake here."
After Thaksin was deposed last year, the government of General Surayud Chulanont appointed a special committee chaired by former Attorney General Khanit na Nakhon to investigate the extrajudicial killings that took place in 2003 as part of the "war on drugs." After five months of inquiries, the committee provided findings that 2,819 people had been killed between February-April 2003.
Many of those killed had been blacklisted by police or local authorities as suspected drug dealers. Police officers were suspected to have been involved in many of the attacks, particularly as many were killed soon after being summoned to police stations for questioning. For example, a 42-year-old grocery shop owner, Somjit Khayandee, was shot dead execution style in her house in Petchburi province on February 20, 2003, three days after she had been summoned to the police station. Local police told Somjit's relatives that her name was on their blacklist.
Police and other anti-drugs units in Thailand have sweeping powers and rarely face punishment for abuses and misconduct. The sense that officials will not be held accountable for their actions is so strong that abusive officials have sought promotion, fame, and financial rewards from the suffering of their victims.
"Many of the same people suspected of killings and other abuses in the last 'war on drugs' remain in positions of authority," Adams said. "The government should prosecute and discipline those involved in previous abuses and institute reforms before asking the police to mount another campaign. Otherwise, more people are likely to be killed."
While Thai authorities said they were going to concentrate on drug dealers, they also said drug users caught up in the net would participate in rehabilitation programs at military bases or be sent to prison. But given Thailand's poor record with respect to coerced drug treatment, that is not good news. Since 2003, thousands of people have been coerced into rehabilitation centers run by security forces without a clinical assessment that they are indeed drug dependent. Many have been held for extended periods of time -- usually 45 days -- in prison-based facilities, even if they are later referred to outpatient treatment. "Rehabilitation" is often provided by security personnel, with military drills a mainstay of the "treatment" provided.
Such coerced treatment has the effect of driving drug users away from seeking treatment or even government-sponsored health care services, Human Rights Watch said. With an estimated 40-50 percent of drug users in Thailand HIV-positive, this may keep drug users from accessing lifesaving HIV-prevention services and treatment.
"Forcing drug users into badly designed rehabilitation programs is incompatible with international standards requiring fully informed consent to treatment," Adams said. "Furthermore, fear of prosecution and harsh treatment will drive them away from seeking health care services that are theirs by right and that could actually help them."
Thailand's latest war on drugs is looking a lot like a war on drug users. That's a shocker.