Resurrecting Thailand’s brutal ‘War on Drugs’
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Resurrecting Thailand’s brutal ‘War on Drugs’

By Dan Waites

With a general election expected within months, earlier this week The Nation interviewed election strategists from four of Thailand’s major political parties. Among those quizzed were representatives of the three largest parties in the governing coalition – the Democrats, Chart Thai Pattana and Bhum Jai Thai – as well as Khanawat Wassinsangworn, deputy leader of the opposition Pheu Thai Party. Hidden among the inevitable platitudes was this from Khanawat:

For social policies, the party would revive its universal health care program and launch a ‘War on Drugs’ programme, which was ‘successful’ during the first Thaksin Shinawatra regime. He said an opinion survey found that the ‘War on Drugs’ was among policies most favoured by the public.

Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with recent Thai history will recall what this particular “social policy” entailed. In January 2003, Thaksin Shinatwatra launched a campaign to rid “every square inch of the country” of drugs within three months. Blacklists of people supposedly involved in the drugs trade were drawn up by the police, village heads and the Office of the Narcotics Control Board, with 329,000 names eventually listed. As Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit write in Thaksin:

From February 1 onwards, the nightly television news opened with clip after clip of prone dead bodies. The newscasters announced that these were drug dealers who had been killed by other drug dealers to prevent them giving information to the authorities. This kind of killing was named kha tat ton, roughly “kill to cut and remove,” often translated as preemptive or silencing killings. For two months, the cumulative death toll was announced daily, increasing at an average daily rate of thirty. At the close of the three months, some 2,637 had been killed, of which officially 68 had been shot by the police in “self-defence”.

Many of the killings bore the hallmarks of professional hits; many victims were killed after reporting themselves to the police. From Thaksin: “The forensic expert, Dr Pornthip Rojanasunan, noted that the bodies were often found with a small packet of ya ba pills (often not noticed at first), that police resisted forensic examinations, and that the authorities seemed to be able to turn the killings on or off at will.” The authorities insisted the police were not involved in the killings (other than the 68 put down to “self-defence”), though denials were half-hearted. The government did everything it could to publicise the death toll and statements made by Thaksin and his ministers made it clear they knew exactly what was happening. As Thaksin himself said: “With the traders, you must use hammer and fist, that is, act decisively and without mercy… If some drug traders die it will be a common thing. We have to send a message that they have to quit.” The killings were state policy.

Unsurprisingly, the campaign was pretty effective at reducing the drug trade, but protests against the brutality mounted quickly. The national police chief admitted the blacklists might have included “people trying to smear one another”. After Thaksin was ousted in September 2006, the junta that took power ordered an investigation into the War on Drugs. It concluded that as many as 1,400 of the 2,500 killed had no link to narcotics.

While most readers will presumably find the idea of extra-judicial killings of drug dealers abhorrent, the policy was wildly popular at the time. A Suan Dusit poll of 10,000 people showed 90 per cent were in favour of the campaign. Since Thaksin’s ousting, the successor parties to his Thai Rak Thai Party – the People’s Power Party and now Pheu Thai – have made occasional noises about resurrecting it (see this Economist piece from 2008). Interestingly, Thaksin’s political enemies inside Thailand rarely use the War on Drugs as an argument against him, preferring to focus on his corruption and general subversion of checks and balances.

But in the wake of last year’s red-shirt protests, Pheu Thai’s continued support for the War on Drugs is particularly notable. While Pheu Thai and the United front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD, aka the red shirts) are not exactly the same thing, there is huge overlap between them. The seven recently bailed red-shirt leaders are set to stand as candidates for the party. Core red-shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan is already a Pheu Thai MP. And while many reds, such as Sombat Boon-ngam-anong, are “red” because they want to see real democracy in Thailand, the majority want to see Pheu Thai take power. And when that party supports a policy of extrajudicial murder of alleged drug dealers, red-shirt demands for “democracy” and “justice” start to look a little hypocritical. The rule of law and right to a fair trial are key democratic principles. You can’t support a policy like Thaksin’s War on Drugs and call yourself a democrat.

When Thaksin’s lawyer Robert Amsterdam recently petitioned the International Criminal Court to investigate the deaths of protesters last year, red-shirt leader Thida Thawornseth said, “We are appealing to international justice to put an end to Thai impunity. Our courts have failed to administer justice, and our government has failed to investigate the murders of more than 80 peaceful protesters.” The ongoing whitewash of the investigations into the killings is indeed reprehensible. But I’d be interested to hear Thida’s thoughts on the War on Drugs.