Thailand to Restart War on Drugs

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has given the green light to a plan by Interior Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung to launch yet another crackdown on drug trafficking, despite the murderous turn to the last one.

The first war on drugs, as it was known, pretty much evolved into a war on anybody the police decided to shoot. Under former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, more than 2,800 people were killed over a three-month period five years ago —about twice the normal murder rate of about 500 per month.

Appointed Premier Surayud Chulanont half-heartedly set up a commission to investigate the drugs war nearly a year after the coup, but it had the effect of absolving the Thaksin administration. The committee found that about 1,370 of those deaths were related to drugs, while 878 were not. Another 571 people were killed for no apparent reason, according to the panel, and police investigated just 80 of those cases.

Although the junta created a committee to investigate the drugs war, the panel had no legal authority and could only make recommendations for prosecution. It determined that no senior Thaksin administration figures were linked to the killings, a finding that frustrated committee members who believed that conservative forces were trying to whitewash the deadly campaign.

“The armed forces are very reluctant to pursue these very important cases against Thaksin because they involve their colleagues, which is a real shame and a real waste of a coup d’etat,” said Kraisak Choonhavan, a member of Surayud’s committee and now an MP with the opposition Democrat party.

Much like the extra-judicial nature of the killings, Surayud’s committee falls into a legal gray area. With no real teeth, it represented the coalescence of the failures of both Thaksin and Surayud to uphold the rule of law, and opens the door for politicians to rewrite history and repeat the same wrongdoings in the future.

“Anywhere in the world, the reason you have committees is to get no results,” said a projects officer with the Asian Human Rights Commission. “It’s obvious from a human rights and legal perspective that when you don’t have criminal prosecution, then you get the same situation as with the massacre in 1976. Nobody was convicted, no action was taken, so was there really a wrong? There is no evidence anything was done wrong, so who says it occurred the way it occurred?”

Without a legal record to look back on, mythmaking can proliferate. Already Samak has claimed that only one person died in a massacre of student activists at Thammasat University in 1976, and he has also sought to minimize mass deaths in Tak Bai and at the Krue Se Mosque in southern Thailand, where a vicious insurgency has raged since January 2004.

“I think the human rights situation is going to get worse and worse,” Kraisak said. “Mr Samak is just a demagogue, a total demagogue. He listens to absolutely no reason. So it’s a very dangerous situation. He even refused to recognize the massacre, the most hideous massacre in Thai history when students were being burned to death alive by right-wing mobs in ’76, which he instigated. He had the gall to come out and say one person died.”

The drugs war history has been similarly rewritten over the past few years. Though Chanit’s panel found that only 80 of the 571 mysterious deaths from February to April 2003 were investigated, the country’s leaders have declared publicly that most, if not all, were guilty of something.

In announcing the plan to renew the drug war last November, Chalerm told the Bangkok Post that nobody who died in 2003 was innocent: “Regarding the extra-judicial killings, people misunderstood that authorities killed innocent people. Instead, it could be that people were killed by their peers to cut the leads for authorities to pursue.”

Samak has also claimed that innocent people did not get shot. “Why are you worried about the fate of drug traffickers?” he asked reporters last month who questioned him on the policy.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej said much the same thing in his annual birthday speech in 2003. “They blame the prime minister for the drug deaths,” he said, referring to Thaksin. “Not all the deaths have been counted, but most of victims were killed by those involved in the drugs trade. There may be only a few deaths for which authorities must take responsibility, so we have to classify those who were killed by fellow dealers, buyers and addicts, and those killed by authorities.”

“Victory in the war on drugs is good,” he added. “They may blame the crackdown for more than 2,500 deaths, but this is a small price to pay. If the prime minister failed to curb [the drugs trade], over the years the number of deaths would easily surpass this toll.”

Indeed, injustice is often justified by support from power figures and public opinion polls. The Constitutional Court bowed to popular will when it narrowly acquitted Thaksin for assets concealment in 2001, and again in 2006 when it voided the April election. The generals cited the yellow flowers handed to soldiers when they ripped up the 1997 constitution. Similarly, the drugs war was said to be popular, which apparently gives authorities carte blanche to shoot to kill.

The campaign’s success has also managed to thwart the judicial process. “For years, Thailand used to have the world’s highest methamphetamine prevalence figures, but this changed following the market crackdown in 2003,” says the UN’s 2007 World Drug Report. Despite the casualties, it adds, “there is no doubt that the methamphetamine situation in Thailand is far better today than it was at the peak of the methamphetamine epidemic in 2001.”

Some foreign embassies have urged the government not to restart the drugs war, but it’s hard to know if that will have any impact.

“The problem is that the Thai population in general didn’t really mind too much,” said a European diplomat.

Samak has essentially admitted that people will die, but claimed it served a greater good. “It is impossible to avoid killings when implementing drug suppression,” he said late last month during his weekly television show. “When the crackdown is underway, killings will take place.”

“I want people to understand that in order to fulfill the anti-drug objective, extra-judicial killings do occur but police officers responsible for these acts will have to face legal consequences,” he added.

In the previous drugs war, that never happened. Last month, three officers charged with killing a 9-year-old child named Nong Fluke were released after the court ruled that the bullet that killed him did not come from police weapons. This came even though an assistant police chief previously said the officers had “accidentally” killed the child.

“The value for life is so meager here,” said Kraisak, who represents the Democrat party in the northeast. “This is very tragic and the source of the entire system of injustice.”

“And yet people seem to accept it and be subordinated to it, particularly in my area in the northeast,” he added. “You have a huge amount of money poured into the political machine, and you have murdering officers still very much present in support of the ruling party. The military government did very little to unravel this, much less dismantle it.”