Drugs crackdown planned, memories of 2003 – Thai Examiner

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha has told the National Police Commissioner General Damrongsak Kittiprapat that suppressing drugs was a key ‘national issue’ as security agencies and the Ministry of Public Health, in a campaign coordinated by the Ministry of the Interior, prepare to launch a national crackdown on drugs which, among other things, will see addicts taken into care on an area by area basis. The planned campaign, for which October 31st is the deadline for local intelligence, is bound to resurrect memories of the 2003 three-month onslaught pushed by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that year in which thousands were detained and killed while hundreds of government officials and police officers were arrested and prosecuted for colluding with drug gangs. The current campaign is being seen as a response to the massacre of 36 people including 24 children on October 7th by a crazed former police officer with a history of drug problems.
Thailand is embarking on another war on drugs with officials being given a deadline of October 31st to prepare lists of drug traffickers across the country.
The campaign is being coordinated by the Ministry of the Interior and is being seen as a response to the horrific massacre of 36 people at the hands of former policeman Panya Khamrab, 24 of whom were young children.
The act has left the country reeling from trauma since news of the atrocity first emerged from Nong Bua Lamphu on October 7th last.
The link between the proposed crackdown and the atrocity was acknowledged this week by Mr Suthipong Chulacharoen the permanent secretary at the Ministry of the Interior after a high-level meeting at the department on October 10th attended by top officials and government agencies concerned with the problems of illicit drugs in the kingdom.
The meeting was attended by National Police Commissioner General Damrongsak Kittiprapat as well as the Director-general of the Department of Provincial Administration and the Secretary-general of the Narcotics Control Board (NCB).
There was agreement at the top-level conclave that a more proactive approach was required to address what was accepted as a difficult problem with illegal drugs flooding into the country.
The meeting, according to Mr Suthipong, heard that a survey conducted by the Department of Provincial Administration which is linked to a database, kept by the ministry, shows that there are 279,094 households in Thailand spread across 31,744 villages that are menaced by the problem of illegal drugs because of an addicted family member or someone linked to the trade.
The top civil servant said it is thought that 1 million people in Thailand currently have their lives negatively impacted or blighted by illegal drug use.
Although the campaign being currently planned is linked to the atrocity in the Na Klang District of Nong Bua Lamphu, it should be noted that a deputation of community leaders in Krabi on the 9th of September last submitted a request for such a coordinated crackdown after several outrages in the southern province. 
These included the murder of three 18-year-old school children by a man just after taking mind-altering methamphetamine pills and another attack on an 83-year-old revered poet in the province by an intoxicated man wielding a machete.
In the Thai parliament on September 14th, southern MPs from Krabi and surrounding provinces attacked the current cannabis legalisation policy of the Bhumjaithai Party saying it sent the wrong signal to young people and encouraged drug culture.
The campaign being planned is thought to involve cooperation between security agencies across the country including the military, the police and public health service officials.
The campaign, much like the crackdown ordered by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from February 1st 2003 to April 30th 2003, will be run area by area with efforts now being made to find accommodation for drug addicts and users who, it is being proposed, will be taken into care or rehabilitation by authorities.
Officials directing the proposed campaign will liaise with doctors in all areas who can provide appropriate medication for those with drug addiction issues who will be detained.
Drug users targeted by the campaign will be required to spend a period of at least one week under the plans being formulated.
Last week, the police chief, General Damrongsak said Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha had ordered him to work with the Ministry of the Interior on the campaign and revealed that the PM had told him that the ‘drug problem is a national issue’ that must be tackled with urgency and as a priority.
Senior police officers in all areas are being encouraged to reach out to their local communities for more accurate intelligence on the ground while also a campaign is being launched to involve the general public who are being asked to report drug dealers and users even if the amount involved is only one pill according to official sources.
There appears to be a zero-tolerance approach being formulated by those behind the campaign. 
The current initiative will inevitably be compared with the ruthless and highly effective crackdown ordered by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2003, a move which contributed to his landslide re-election win in 2005 but which also marred the populist leader’s legacy and made him enemies within Thailand’s liberal elite which resurfaced in heightened opposition to his government before the 2006 coup d’état.
The Thaksin initiative was launched under the coordination of a special task force centre created under order 30-31/2546 which was led by then Deputy Prime Minister and former Prime Minister from 1996 to 1997 General Chawalit Yongchaiyudh.
Ironically, the 2006 military coup d’état which removed Thaksin, came while the former PM was visiting the United Nations, the organisation whose efforts to investigate the campaign were stonewalled and stifled by a defiant Thaksin who, at the time, instead of defending himself, went on the attack against those who questioned the move. 
Thaksin boldly and famously declared ‘the UN is not my father’ as he made it clear he would defy any external power including threats from sources in the United States to cut off aid and support to the Thai military at the time over what he saw as an issue vital to the nation.
The robust drugs crackdown in which thousands are thought to have died after being placed on blacklists, prepared before the onslaught against illegal drugs, drew stiff and tenacious resistance from Thailand’s Human Rights Commissioner at the time, Dr Pradit Chareonthaitawee.
This led to the UN attempting to send in a fact-finding delegation to Thailand and appointing a special investigator.
There were real fears among the country’s political opposition at a precarious time when the economy was just recovering from a bruising financial crisis that had seen the International Monetary Fund called in when the baht nearly collapsed, of external sanctions.
The opposition feared the kingdom could be boycotted or censured for the ruthless campaign.
A ferociously determined Thaksin turned on more liberal elements of the Thai media for reporting stories which were taken up by international news organisations which he said were full of half-truths and injurious to the critical interests of the kingdom in what he appeared to see in reality as an all-out war.
Addressing the Thai senate, he dismissed the ‘thinking of foreigners’ and warned that too much of a cosmopolitan attitude was dangerous while dismissing any threat from the United States where rumblings were getting louder in the US Congress as the scale of the killings became apparent.
‘It is not necessary for Thailand to make any explanation to the UN. We are a sovereign country. If any country wants to cut aid because of what we are doing, frankly speaking, I don’t really care,’ Thaksin declared boldly.
Responding specifically to reports from Washington that it may take action on its support and assistance to the Thai military, he told senators that he was confident that it would not happen.
‘We have explained this to the US ambassador and the US administration understands it very well,’ he said.
The scale of what happened in three months in 2003 has never been definitively quantified for obvious reasons but some estimates suggest that 43,102 drug dealers were arrested out of 46,522 on police lists with data submitted to the Ministry of the Interior showing the drug problem fully eliminated in Kamphaeng Phet, Khon Kaen, Chiang Mai, Nakhon Ratchasima, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Nan, Phichit, Lamphun, Loei, Sisaket, Surat Thani, Kalasin and Nong Bua Lamphu while the problem was reported at being eliminated at between 79.2% to 83.14% in the provinces of Nakhon Sawan, Lampang, Samut Prakan, Suphan Buri and Prachin Buri.
Nearly all the provinces reported a 50% success rate and the acid test was a three-fold rise in the price of drugs on the street in the immediate aftermath of the remorseless campaign.
Officially, police at the time only accepted that 37 people had died in the course of the campaign reportedly after trying to flee from arrest or firing at police.
However, weeks afterwards it was estimated by human rights sources that 2,274 people had perished throughout the campaign and that figure has risen to over four thousand as the scale of the operation was reappraised over the years.
These killings, although never officially accepted by police, were attributed, however, to gangland internecine warfare and strife caused by the crackdown and the disruption caused to what was already a violent and dangerous activity where insecurity ran deep.
It was reported that up to 280,000 drug users surrendered to authorities for treatment during the campaign such was the fear generated as the brutal suppression of the trade began.
Before the onslaught, Thaksin himself suggested that 3 million young people in Thailand were using drugs of which 700,000 had become addicts.
In the course of the campaign, it was reported that 870 police officers were arrested and detained with 736 eventually being fired and prosecuted for their involvement in drug-related activities.
The then Interior Minister, Wan Muhammad Nor Matha, at one point, revealed that 440 local officials including politicians had been arrested including two police colonels who had been dismissed from service.
The tactics deployed by the government in 2003 were both novel and effective. 
This included incentives to be paid to police officers who apprehended or broke up major drug dealing rings resulting in asset seizures with reports of up to ฿1 million being paid for successful operations.
The terror which saw thousands of drug users surrendering for confinement at rehabilitation camps derived from fears of being listed on a blacklist drawn up by police and officials which were not subject to judicial review or oversight.
For many, being named on these lists was a death sentence as human rights activist and lawyer Somchai Homlaor pointed out at the time.
His comments in 2003 came when panic-stricken drug dealers and often people who claimed they should never have been on the lists began to contact the powerless and already frustrated Human Right Commission in Thailand.
Sunai Phasuk, another rights activist of that era working with Forum Asia told of some unfortunate individuals who were advised to go to the police and those behind the campaign to clarify matters who were subsequently killed.
‘Most of them got killed on the way back from the police office. People found their name on a blacklist, went to the police, then ended up dead,’ he proclaimed in 2003.
Lawyer Somchai believes that some elements linked with the police were behind the slayings. 
‘If the police weren’t involved, why hasn’t one murderer been arrested?’ he asked in 2003. ‘The only sensible conclusion is the police are sending out death squads.’
Last week, Police Colonel Wirut Sirisawasdibutr, the Secretary-general of the Institute for Justice Reform described some elements of the crackdown of the Thaksin era as a ‘crime against humanity’ and said he strongly believe that any proposed campaign waged by the current government would not repeat such mistakes.
Such allegations were strenuously denied at the time by Thaksin’s government while also fending off attempts by the United Nations to send an investigative team to Thailand to examine the allegations.
Thaksin repeatedly told reporters that all actions taken by his government were within the law and legal framework.
The current House of Representatives Speaker and then Opposition leader Chuan Leekpai, the leader of the Democrat Party, condemned the anti-narcotics campaign in 2003 and spoke of extra judicial killings.
Similarly with Dr Pradit Chareonthaitawee, who spoke openly about such killings and warned of the possibility of innocent people losing their lives due to the arbitrary and extrajudicial nature of the lethal campaign.
The Thaksin government however found the public was resolutely behind the campaign even in Bangkok where a survey by Assumption University showed 84.2% were in favour of the rough justice initiative.
At the same time, 65.3% expressed unease that the temporary carte blanche which appeared to have been on offer to the police may have been used by unscrupulous or corrupt police officers to settle scores within the criminal underworld.
At the end of February 2003, public concern in Thailand was piqued when police, firing at point-blank range, killed a nine-year-old boy left in the car of a drug dealer whose mother was driving it and who fled from it as police caught up.
In the meantime, the man who tried to stand up to Thaksin’s steamroller and highly effective onslaught on illicit drugs, on a human rights basis, Dr Pradit Chareonthaitawee, ultimately failed to bring the United Nations in when it mattered and for his troubles received death threats and castigation by the Thaksin regime for what was perceived as betraying Thailand’s effort to root out evil drug dealers and the scourge of the nation.
In the meantime, the resolute nature of Thai public opinion against illegal drugs and those who use them is still very much alive. 
It can be seen from a National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) poll published just this Sunday in the Bangkok Post on the kingdom’s new Narcotics Act which aims to usher in a new era of treating drug users as public health subjects in need of care.
64.04% of the public oppose this measure while 50.15% want to see drug users prosecuted and jailed for their engagement with illicit drugs at any level.
The survey indicated that 43.89% of the public knew of a drug dealer in their circle of friends with 56.11% saying No.
Only 20.31% of the public fully supported the government’s more humane and compassionate policy towards drug users with a further 15.57% in moderate agreement.
Things have not changed all that much in the intervening years despite the regulatory and legislative campaign by the Bhumjaithai Party this year which has seen marijuana fully legalised.
Over the past decade in Thailand, there has been a movement within official circles in the state administration to tone down or even scrap altogether the US-inspired war on drugs with one key problem being the numbers incarcerated in Thai prisons.
However, the sheer scale of the methamphetamine factories on Thailand’s borders with the golden triangle where a pill can be manufactured for as little as 50 satangs and sold on the market for ฿9 has left the country awash with methamphetamine-related drugs.
On October 13th, police in Nakhon Si Thammarat arrested two former fruit sellers, a couple named as 30-year-old Thawatchai Distaroj or No and 21-year-old Rattana Srirapen or Jeab for the distribution of methamphetamine pills.
At the home of the suspects, officers found 10,000 pills, ฿17,100 in cash and a 9 mm unregistered handgun as well as a shotgun, essential tools of this violent trade.
The pair admitted to police that they could no longer afford to make a living selling fruit.
They purchased the pills for ฿8.40 and sold them on for ฿8.90 or a 50 satang margin. This was a more profitable business for them than being fruit sellers in the current economy.
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Joseph Anthony is an expat from Ireland who has lived in Thailand for the last decade. He has worked extensively in the media including editorial positions in Ireland and Thailand. He is focused on economic and business stories in Thailand as well as the expat lifestyle.

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