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January 31, 2008 - Bangkok Post (Thailand)

A New Government, Another War On Drugs

Focus / Narcotics Suppression

By Anucha Charoenpo

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The new government's plan to launch its own "war on drugs" may please supporters of coalition leader People Power, a party believed to be the reincarnation of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra's disbanded Thai Rak Thai. But those opposed to the move -- human rights defenders, community leaders and anti-drugs officials -- are far from thrilled.

The first war on drugs declared by the government of Mr Thaksin from Feb 1 to April 30, 2003 resulted in the deaths of over 2,500 so-called drug suspects. It caused an uproar among human rights activists, who viewed the crusade as giving law enforcement authorities a licence to kill, without allowing suspects recourse to due process of the law.

They now fear that if the campaign is to be revived under the same concept, it could lead to even more deaths.

"I never thought the Thaksin government's drugs war was successful. In fact it was a failure because it violated people's rights and never brought any big-time drug dealers to justice," said Angkhana Neelaphaijit, chairwoman of the Working Group on Justice for Peace.

Mrs Angkhana, who travels frequently to the deep South to provide legal counselling for Muslim victims affected by the ongoing insurgency there, found information indicating that a dozen Muslim people disappeared without trace during the war on drugs and that local police never carried out proper investigations.

Mrs Angkhana said that when she checked with the police, they said the disappearances were linked to drug trade in the area.

(Mrs Angkhana is the widow of Muslim lawyer Somchai, who was abducted by persons unknown on March 12, 2004. Though feared dead, his body has not been found; conjecture has focused mainly on foul play involving the police.)

Mr Thaksin declared the war on drugs in 2003 as part of a national policy, in the hope of wiping out widespread drug abuse. At first, the campaign was well received across the country as drug abuse was a real scourge many households could identify with.

After some time, however, the government began facing a barrage of criticism, as many felt the suppression part of the campaign was being carried out too heavy-handedly, with arrests being made -- and extra-judicial killings being carried out -- simply to attain pre-set goals.

Many people suspected of dealing in drugs were shot dead; their bodies were found dumped along the roadside. Police responsible for investigating these unnatural deaths simply told the public the deceased were likely to have been involved in narcotics and eliminated by drug gangs.

Bowing to mounting public pressure, the Thaksin government later appointed a panel led by former deputy attorney-general Praphan Naikowit to look into these deaths, but it could not find anyone responsible.

After the military coup of Sept 19, 2006, the junta-appointed government of Surayud Chulanont set up another committee to look into the issue last August, but that panel also failed to gather enough evidence to prosecute people believed involved with the campaign.

"The new government should learn from the mistakes of the previous one. It should prosecute only the big fish," Mrs Angkhana said, adding that if the attempt to eradicate drugs is to continue, it should be firmly based on respect for basic human rights and the rule of law.

Min Pothog, a village headman of Ban Nong Sa-no in Sri Samrong district, Sukhothai province, said dozens of young people in neighbouring villages had been shot dead without evidence during the campaign, and no one had been prosecuted for those killings. The bereaved parents had been left to suffer in silence.

Bai Jaranil, a defence volunteer from the same village, said the new government should not think of drug suppression as simply a part of the populist policies it announced to attract people's votes. This was an issue that directly involved people's lives. So it should supervise the planned campaign carefully and ensure fairness and justice for those affected.

"Drugs, especially ya ba [methamphetamine pills] are making a comeback. I believe many more people are likely to be affected by a continuation of this campaign," Mr Bai said.

Pitaya Jinawat, deputy secretary-general of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB), said that although his office was responsible for the task, his officials had never been involved in any shooting incident during the Thaksin government's war on drugs.

While declining to confirm there has been an increase in the underground supply of ya ba, he agreed that the war on drugs should be continued, provided it is done under the legal framework.

"The issue of drugs is a dynamic problem. The demand ebbs and rises. So anti-drugs authorities cannot stop working," said Mr Pitaya.

He admitted that anti-narcotics authorities were very concerned about the rising number of young drug users at the moment, as so-called "club drugs" -- ecstasy, ketamine and ice or crystal methamphetamines -- - were easily available at several night entertainment places in Bangkok and big cities.

Among drug users, many teenage girls, mainly students, were being forced by drug gangs to act as couriers if they could not afford to pay for the pills. According to studies, most of these girls were from broken families and had been lured into taking drugs by their peers, he said.

To prevent youngsters from turning to drugs, the authorities and civil networks should work closely to provide them with more free space so they could express themselves constructively, such as sports or recreational areas in their own communities.

"Based on the information we've obtained, around 10% of 5.6 million young people nationwide are likely to take drugs or have experience of taking it; that's why we think a new round of drug suppression campaign is necessary," he said.

He said that while he was sure the government would act on its policy of drug suppression, his office would make it a priority to launch a campaign aimed at preventing the spread of drugs among young people.

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