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US Drug War In Asia
US Pushes Drug War Policies Across Asia
According to a November 11, 2008 article in the Drug War Chronicle, "The government of Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat announced a new anti-drug offensive [earlier that month] aimed at a resurgent methamphetamine market and an enduring market in opium and heroin" ("Thai Government in New Drug Crackdown"). The Prime Minister himself suggested that "the new 90-day offensive could be seen as a continuation of the 2003 anti-drug campaign led by then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra," a synopsis of which appears directly below this post, as well as in the above linked Chronicle piece.
Due to the massive extra-judicial killings of frequently innocent people that occured during the 2003 campaign, human rights groups are keeping a close eye on this new offensive. Though the Prime Minister has asserted that "killings will not be tolerated" in his new anti-drug strategy, the groups remain wary. As the Chronicle explains, "Police and other officials in Thailand have sweeping powers and rarely face punishment for abuses and misconduct" - such as executing people suspected of drug crimes. Moreover, as Asia director for Human Right Watch Brad Adams said, "Many of the same people suspected of killings and other abuses in the last 'war on drugs' remain in positions of authority. [...] The government should prosecute and discipline those involved in previous abuses and institute reforms before asking police to mount another campaign. Otherwise, more people are likely to be killed." However, Thai officials have provided no indication that they would enact such a proposal.
The Chronicle reports that "Thai authorities said they were going to concentrate on drug dealers, [but] they also said drug users caught up in the net would participate in rehabilitation programs at military bases or be sent to prison." However, Thailand has historically taken a militaristic approach to such coerced rehabilitation, and human rights advocates do not see changes on the horizon. Instead, Human Rights Watch suspects that "[s]uch coerced treatment has the effect of driving drug users away from seeking treatment or even government-sponsored health care services." And in a country where 40 to 50 percent of drug users are HIV-positive, neglecting public health and harm reduction-oriented approaches is a dangerous road to hoe.
Drug policy reformers and human rights watchdogs should remain mindful of past abuses in Thailand's drug war, as they are - despite the government's claims - likely to be repeated in November's offensive. As the Chronicle concludes, "Thailand's latest war on drugs is looking a lot like a war on drug users. That's a shocker."
Statements by Thai officials have raised fears of a another bloodbath as that nation's so-called "drug war" is renewed. Under former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, more than 2,500 people – only a fraction of whom were involved in drugs – were killed allegedly by police authorities working from official blacklists.
The Ottawa Citizen reported on February 23, 2008 ("Thailand Promises A Deadly Toll During New 'War On Drugs'") that "The new Thai government is to relaunch the country's "war on drugs" which killed more than 2,500 people allegedly involved in the trade. During a three-month killing spree in 2003 as intense as a full-scale armed conflict, thousands named on police "black lists" were shot dead, allegedly on government orders. Yet the government's narcotics control board concluded that more than half the victims had no involvement in drugs. One couple from northeastern Thailand were shot dead after coming into unexplained wealth and being added to a black list. They were, in fact, lottery winners. The campaign was one of the principal policies of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister and Mr. Samak's political patron, who now lives in exile and owns Manchester City Football Club. 'My government will decisively implement a policy against drug trafficking. Government officials must implement this policy 24 hours a day, but I will not set a target for how many people should die,' said Samak Sundaravej, the new prime minister. The interior minister, Chalerm Yubamrung, said: 'When we implement a policy that may bring 3,000 to 4,000 bodies, we will do it.'"
A recent article in the Bangkok Post provides some background on the Thai drug war. The Post reported on Jan. 31, 2008 ("A New Government, Another War On Drugs"): "'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.)"
According to the Post, "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."
In addition, according to the Post, "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."
The Thai government announced that it would begin yet another round of its war on drugs and drug users. The Nation newspaper reported on April 12, 2005 ( "Anti-Narcotics Campaig: PM Launches New Round In War On Drugs") that "Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra yesterday launched a new round of the 'War on Drugs', sparking fears that drastic action could lead to another wave of extrajudicial killings and further tarnish the country's standing on human rights. 'We will pay extra attention to former convicts and drug suspects who have had arrest warrants issued against them,' Thaksin said, as representatives from relevant agencies gathered to hear his anti-drugs policy."
According to the Nation, "The new crackdown will last from this month until June. 'And as long as I am the prime minister, the scourge of drugs will never be able to frighten people again,' he said. Human right activists day expressed concern yesterday over the new 'war', saying the government had not yet answered questions over extrajudicial killings stemming from the last crackdown. Up to 3,000 people died in the first round of the war on drugs, from February to April 2003. Many countries, including the United States, strongly criticised the campaign and called on the government to explain the high death toll."
The Nation reported that Thaksin said the first 'War on Drugs' was the government policy that the public was most happy with during the last administration." This assertion is more or less borne out by a survey reported on in the Bangkok Post on March 20, 2005 ( "Public Senses War On Drugs Futile"), though that same poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Thai citizens feel the campaign will not succeed. According to the Post, "The majority of people polled in 25 provinces across the country have no confidence in the government's ability to eradicate drugs from Thailand. In a recent survey by Assumption University's Abac poll, 68% of 5,168 respondents, representing a range of age groups, said they had no confidence in the plan's success, while only 23% thought the campaign would be successful. However, 74% of respondents supported the campaign to eradicate drugs, saying they were ready to provide information and clues regarding illicit drugs to the authorities. About half said they were willing to help spread information about the dangers of drugs. About 62% of respondents wanted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to continue with the campaign against drugs and a similar percentage said the government should take tough action against politicians and state officials found to be involved in the drug trade."
The killing in Thailand continues. The Scotsman newspaper reported on Feb. 25, 2003 ( "Thai Police Officers Arrested On Murder Charges") that "Three Thai police officers who gunned down a nine-year-old boy as part of a controversial drugs crackdown that has left more than 500 dead were arrested on murder charges yesterday. In a war on drugs championed by Thailand's political leadership, but now under heavy fire from human rights groups, a pregnant woman was also shot to death." The officers reportedly deny the charges.
According to the Scotsman, "The prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's no-holds-barred campaign to root out drugs, from Thailand within three months, launched with great fanfare on 1 February, has seen about 500 people killed. Bullet-ridden bodies have turned up daily, with drug suspects shot to death by masked gunmen. The Thai police have admitted causing only a handful of the deaths, insisting almost all the killings were by drug gangsters trying to silence possible informers."
London's Independent newspaper on Feb. 26, 2003 reported that the death toll could actually be much higher. According to the Independent ( "Nine-Year-Old Dies As Thai Drug Sweep Claims 901 Lives"), "The campaign has has resulted in 901 deaths of suspected drug dealers over the past three weeks across Thailand. A one-year-old baby was killed yesterday during a drug-related shooting in southern Songkhla province that left his mother seriously wounded."
The Independent continues:
The Independent also notes that "A recent university poll showed 92 per cent approval of Mr Thaksin's tough drugs policy. Yet 70 per cent feared they might be set up or killed by police or drug gangs."
The Thai government began an all-out offensive against drug users on Feb. 1, 2003. There are grave concerns however that police in the crackdown are out of control and have already committed hundreds of murders. The BBC News reported on Feb. 14, 2003 ( "Thai Drugs Killings Condemned") that "The police crackdown began on 1 February, and so far more than 350 people are reported to have been killed and 9,000 arrested. The human rights group Amnesty International told the BBC Thai service it had grave concerns about any extra-judicial killings, saying they were only justified in cases of self-defence."
The Thai government claims that police have killed only a few of the total. The BBC reported that "Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told reporters that only 13 suspects had been shot by police, and that violence within drug gangs was responsible for the rest." This assertion is questionable, however. The Bangkok Post reported on Feb. 17, 2003 ( "Extra-Judicial Killings") that "Pornthip Rojanasunan, acting director of the Forensic Science Institute, said the justice system could be jeopardised by a lack of explanation of extra-judicial killings. Many drug dealers had died since the Feb 1 launch of the government's crusade against drugs. Some were killed by police who said they were acting in self-defence, and others by unknown assailants, although police attribute the murders to scared drug gangs cleaning out their ranks. Dr Pornthip said it was essential to identify the cause of death where police were involved. 'It should be made clear whether the killing was done in self-defence or not,' she said. The law required the presence of at least one doctor at the scene of an unnatural death. This was intended to ensure justice for both the suspect and the police by identifying the cause of the death, but few people were willing to intervene in such cases. They worried about how the police would react. 'As it is, doctors don't want to go out to the crime scene. They don't want to have any problems with police,' she said. This could result in the judicial system being twisted and cases where people had actually been murdered could be overlooked, Dr Pornthip said."
New Bill In Thai Parliament Would Expand Army's Power
A controversial bill in the Thai parliament would give the military "the power to arrest anyone and search homes without a court order," according to a story in the Bangkok Post on May 27, 2001 ( "New Bill Vital If Army Is To Ensure Success"). The Post reports that General Panlop Pinmanee, security advisor to the Thai prime minister and acting deputy director of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), "said a new security act was indispensable if the government wanted soldiers to play an active role in tackling drug and other national security issues, stipulated under the new ISOC structure. The ISOC had been gtiven a direct role in tackling drug trafficking illegal immigrants and ethnic minority groups." General Panlop, who is also a Thai Rak Thai party list Member of Parliament, told the Post "'Military officers assigned to tackle these problems could easily face lawsuits if there was no security bill to give them protection.'"
Yet "General Panlop, a close associate of former Palang Dharma leader Major-General Chamlong Srimuang, distanced Thai Rak Thai from the controversial People and State Security Protection Bill. The measure, he said, was drafted by a New Aspiration party-appointed panel led by former defence permanent secretary General Prasert Sararit, and had nothing to do with his party." The Post goes on to note that "Some provisions came as a surprise, including a proposal to replace the ISOC with a new outfit called the People and State Security Protection Command. 'That is really weird,' said Gen. Panlop. He also denied the army had anything to do with the bill. 'We have not talked about a security bill that would give absolute power to the military.'"
US Troops Training Thai Troops For Anti-Drug Operations, Have Military Exercises Near China Border
The Chicago Tribune reported on May 20, 2001 ( "US Troops In Military Exercises Near China's Border") that "Some 5,000 American troops are in northern Thailand not far from the Chinese border this weekend as part of long-scheduled Cobra Gold 2001 military exercises being staged at a time when Thailand and Myanmar are trading angry diplomatic missives and live artillery shells."
These exercises, and the addition of US military
at a time when tensions in the region are high. The Tribune
reports "Periodic hostilities over control over drug
trafficking are no novelty. But this time the United States and
China are playing key roles on opposite sides, just weeks after
the US spy plane incident strained their bilateral relations."
The Trib goes on to note:
Thai Officials Step Up Drug War, Institute Death Penalty; Thai, Myanmar Forces In Border Skirmishes Over Drug Trade
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported on March 29, 2001 ( "Thailand To Executive Drug Convicts In Narcotics Crackdown"), that "Thailand will next month execute a group of drug convicts and publicy destroy a haul of confiscated narcotics." The news report notes that "Death sentences handed down to traffickers are normally commuted to life sentences in Thailand, but after declaring a 'war on drugs' earlier this year Mr. Thaksin said the executions, by firing squad, would now be sped up." (Mr. Thaksin is Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.)
This get-tough approach comes at the same time that Prime Minister Thaksin's government is moving toward favoring treatment over incarceration for users. According to an editorial in the Bangkok (Thailand) Post on April 11, 2001 ( "Users Don't Deserve A Life Behind Bars"), "One of the foremost tasks of the high-powered committee set up by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra during last month's national drug conference in Chiang Rai was to change the emphasis in the narcotics law so that drug addicts and those who support their habits by selling small amounts of drugs are treated as having a medical conditions rather than as criminals and must undergo compulsory rehabilitation at an army camp."
The border between Thailand and Myanmar (formerly Burma) is
a major concern.
The Asian Wall Street Journal reported April 6, 2001 (
A Cross-Border Mess"):
The Journal notes that the drug trade has escalated tensions on the Thai border, and has led to clashes with Myanmar. According to the Journal story, "The Thais have become almost hysterical, pointing at the United Wa State Army, which has good relations with Myanmar's military government, as the dominant methamphetamine producer, suggesting collusion between them. The reality is Myanmar gives priority to security, happy to have the USWA end its insurgency and content to leave the group armed and with time to shift out of narcotics. If it wants its claims of fighting drugs and of being a sincere neighbor to be taken seriously, Myanmar must pressure the UWSA to go straight. As it is, the UWSA it in the process of resettling several hundred thousand of its followers from arid, poppy-growing highlands to fertile plains opposite Thailand's Chiang Rai province. Within sight of the border, they are building towns and opening new fruit and livestock farmlands. But they are also producing methamphetamines at an alarming rate, according to Thai and Western intelligence sources, protected by thousands of well-trained, motivated soldiers."
The Journal also notes, however, "Myanmar is correct when it accuses the Thai authorities of supporting the Shan State Army, formed by a former aide to retired drug baron Khun Sa, encamped close to the border and arguably on Thai soil. Although the armed group recently has made a show of combating narcotics, Thai and Western officials confirm it is involved in trafficking in order to buy arms. Some of the recent clashes have occurred because Myanmar government forces have been trying to strike at the Shan State Army."
The Malaysia Star reported on March 23, 2001 ( "Thaksin Wants List of MP Drug Traffickers") about allegations made by "Lt. Gen. Wattanachai Chaimuanwong, commander of Thailand's third army, that several politicans and businessmen were involved in drug trafficking. Lt. Gen. Wattanachai, responsible for defending the country's northern border with Myanmar, told Thai radoi yesterday he could not take legal action against the culprits because he did not have the authority or evidence to do so. 'I can't arrest them because we are not authorised to, even though we know what they are doing,' he said. 'Narcotics trafficking is a multi-billion baht business involving hundreds of people and networks... Politicians need money from them to buy votes.'"
Thai authorities are also pointing blame at Buddhist temples for methamphetamine use. According to the Straits Times of Singapore ( "Drugs At Temple Embarrass Monks Further") on March 30, 2001, "The seizure of 16,000 methamphetamine pills from a Buddhist temple in Bangkok on Tuesday is the latest blow for Thailand's monks already embarrassed by revelations that one in 10 is hooked on the pills. The drugs, sealed in a container, were pulled out from a temple pond in Khao San Road -- Bangkok's colourful backpacker haunt made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, The Beach. The discovery came just a day after revelations by Mr. Manop Polparin, a specialist with the state's Religious Affairs Department, that an estimated one in 10 of Thailand's 30,000 Buddhist monks and novice monks were addicted to methamphetamines. But he admitted that temple abbots did not want to face the problem and refused to work with the police, fearing a backlash from the public."
US Experts Confirm Taliban's Success; US Anti-Drug Aid May Start Soon As Result
The New York Times reported on May 20, 2001 ( "Taliban's Ban On Growing Opium Poppies Is Called A Success") that "The first American narcotics experts to go to Afghanistan under Taliban rule have concluded that the movement's ban on opium-poppy cultivation appears to have wiped out the world's largest crop in less than a year, officials said today. The American findings confirm earlier reports from the United Nations drug control program that Afghanistan, which supplied three-quarters of the world's opium and most of the heroin reaching Europe, had ended poppy planting in one season. But the eradication of poppies has come at a terrible cost to farming families, and experts say it will not be known until the fall planting season begins whether the Taliban can continue to enforce it."
According to the Times, "The sudden turnaround by the Taliban, a move that left international drug experts stunned when reports of near-total eradication began to come in earlier this year, opens the way for American aid to the Afghan farmers who have stopped planting poppies." US funds for alternative development, which would help farmers who have given up growing lucrative opium poppies, has been held up for some time while officials sought to confirm the Taliban's claims.
According to a story in the New York Times on April 25, 2001 ( "US Sends 2 to Assess Drug Program for Afghans"), "The United Nations Drug Control Program had met resistance from the Clinton administration to any projects to assist Afghans in a drug-eradication program. American policy had been to isolate the Taliban and punish them through United Nations sanctions because of their refusal to turn over Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born Islamic militant wanted in connection with bombings of two American Embassies in Africa. The United States may now have a less rigid policy. 'The United States is prepared to fund a United Nations International Drug Control Program proposal in Afghanistan to assist former poppy cultivators hard hit by the ban,' General Powell wrote to Mr. Annan on April 16. 'However, we want to ensure that assistance benefits the farmers, not the factions, while it also curbs the Afghan drug trade. I have authorized US participation in a UNDCP-led mission to Afghanistan to assess the potential for assistance and the cooperation of local authorities.' (Ed. Note: General Powell is US Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell, and Mr. Annan is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.)
The Times reports in its May 20 story that "Some questions
about the size of hidden opium and heroin stockpiles near the
northern border of Afghanistan remained to be answered. But the
drug agency has so far found nothing to contradict United
Nations reports," and so "On Thursday, Secretary of
State Colin L. Powell announced a $43 million grant to
Afghanistan in additional emergency aid to cope with the effects
of a prolonged drought. The United States has become the
biggest donor to help Afghanistan in the drought."
Yet, other news reports raise questions about whether the Afghan
population has noticed the assistance. The Guardian (UK)
Weekly reported on April 5, 2001 (
"Taliban Rulers Get No Thanks For Ending Afghanistan's
Opium Production" that:
More Sources Confirm Rumors Of Sharp Cut In Afghan Opium Production
The Guardian (UK) reported on April 5, 2001 ( "Taliban Rulers Get No Thanks For Ending Afghanistan's Opium Production"), "Western sources in Kabul last weekend confirmed that poppy production in Afghanistan had virtually ceased. This follows an edict issued last year by the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, declaring opium to be un-Islamic." The story notes that "The ban has caused massive hardship to dordinary Afghans, who have suffered war, drought and Soviet occupation. 'I used to have one-and-a-half acres planted with poppy. Now we have nothing,' farmer Hussain Gul said. 'I have to feed a family of 14.' However, the Guardian also points out "To date this has had no discernible effect on the international heroin market, thanks to massive stockpiles in countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Turkey where the raw opium is refined. Intelligence experts from Britain and the United States believe the fall in production could lead to a worldwide shortage and price rise, although production in countries such as Burma and Colombia is likely to increase to satisfy demand."
Differing estimates of Afghanistan's success at eradicating opium production have stirred controversy. That nation's leader issued an edict in June 2000, calling for a complete end to opium production. Though widely hailed, the edict was reportedly ineffective. According to the US State Dept. report, cultivation in Afghanistan went up dramatically in 2000, with cultivation estimated at 64,510 hectares, up from 51,500 hectares in 1999, with a potential yield of 3,656 metric tons, up from 2,861 metric tons in 1999.
In contrast, the UN's International Narcotics Control Board, in its most recent report issued Feb. 20, 2001, estimates that poppy cultivation in Afghanistan declined by 10 percent in 2000 from the previous year, and further estimates that the yield declined by 28 percent.
Regardless of the claim of a downward trend in Afghanistan, the UN's estimate shows much higher amounts of poppy cultivation and opium production than does the US report. The UN Drug Control Programme's World Drug Report 2000, issued in early 2001, that in 2000 Afghanistan had 82,000 hectares of poppies under cultivation, as compared with 91,000 hectares in 1999. Similarly, the UN's estimate of potential opium differs significantly -- 4,565 metric tons in 1999, down to about 3,300 metric tons in 2000.
It is not possible to say which, if any, of the estimates are reliable. Indeed, the US report comments on its own estimates: "Potential production estimates for 1996-1999 have been revised upward from previous INCSRs, reflecting improved methodologies for estimating opium yields." The estimates of land under poppy cultivation were unchanged and not revised in this report.
Resistance To US Certification Process Grows, As Measures Of Progress Are Questioned
The US State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs released its 2000 International Narcotics Control Report and the list of countries certified as cooperating on matters of international drug control on March 3, 2001. Both Afghanistan and Myanmar (Burma) were decertified.
Several members of Congress have expressed opposition to the certification process, and Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) has introduced legislation to eliminate the process. As well, leaders of several countries, most notably Mexican President Vicente Fox, have expressed their opposition to the process. Some have suggested the Multilateral Evaluation Mechanism, used by the Organization for American States' Inter-American Council on Drug Abuse (CICAD), as a replacement.