A comparison of Thaksin’s and Duterte’s war on drugs, and their innate potential for failure.
A MOTORBIKE races by with an explosive sound. Gun shots ring out and another young life drops to his knees. His wife embraces his dying body as he recoils from the life-shattering bullets that just struck him. A witness to this tragic killing watched his neighbors, confused at the horrendous scene. This disastrous image is presented to all in the name of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.
This scenario is disturbingly common in the Philippines today as state-sanctioned killings are being facilitated and encouraged. In a recent speech, President Duterte compared himself to Hitler saying, “Hitler massacred three million Jews … there’s three million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
Every day now, thousands of drug users dependent on substances that are already derailing their lives have to fear the tyranny of legalized killings. The tragedy of drug addiction is now being exasperated by arbitrary killings—enacted by archaic and unjust leaders that reinforce draconian laws.
World leaders are commonly using extrajudicial killings and the death penalty as a “solution” to social issues that plague societies. Historically, however, this kind of punishment has proven to create an array of further issues on already suffering societies.
“Punishment, not to mention the most extreme forms of punishment such as killing or murder, does not reduce the use of drugs nor the supply of drugs” Gloria Lai, Senior Policy Officer at International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) told the Asian Correspondent.
“In fact, punishment only exacerbates stigmatization and marginalization of already vulnerable people, for example, people who might be seeking drug treatment would no longer feel safe to admit their drug dependence and look for treatment services.”
As casualties grow in Duterte’s intended six-month war on drugs, civil society groups from across the globe – including prominent human rights groups – continue to exert pressure on UN drug control authorities to urge an immediate stop to the killings. This spark in activity has created a hope for establishing alternative ideas, solutions and a change to policy and methodologies regarding drug crimes in the region.
In response to the Philippines’ war on drugs, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said, “I unequivocally condemn his apparent endorsement of extrajudicial killing, which is illegal and a breach of fundamental rights and freedoms.”
Nonetheless, many states, specifically the Philippines, have failed to meet these global standards and continue to bypass international law.
According to IDPC, state-sanctioned killings exasperate already poverty-ridden communities and subject marginalized groups to even more dangers.
Gloria Lai continues to explain the dangers of no due process.
“When there is no due process, there is no way to prove that the people killed had anything to do with drugs, least of all played a significant role in the drug trade,” she says.
Making a comparison to Thaksin’s drug war, Lai says, “This is seen in Thailand where official investigations of the killings in Thaksin’s war on drugs in 2003 found that just over half of those killed had nothing to do with drugs but rather dispute between neighbors or with police.”
In 2003, Thailand’s then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched a war on drugs aiming to rid the country of its drug dealers and traffickers.
Unfortunately, the endeavor failed miserably.
Police and armed mercenaries subsequently carried out misplaced and arbitrary killings targeting thousands who had absolutely no association with the drug trade at all. The outbreak of violence towards “drug dealers” did not even scarcely resolve the source of the drug problem. In fact, it created divisiveness and segregation between communities and the state.
When violent operations of this magnitude are implemented with complete impunity, citizens lose their hope in the law and doubt the justifications behind the state’s actions.
Within three months, Shinawatra’s war on drugs led to over 2,800 extrajudicial killings. Noting again, half of those killed were completely innocent. Thaksin was able to cut down methamphetamine production temporarily, at the cost of unleashing death-squads that inaccurately targeted innocent lives.
Naturally, the international community was outraged and called for action through human rights groups and other direct responses. Yet Thaksin did not immediately return with sympathy, apology or resolution. More so, Thaksin’s stern mentality in response to drugs in Thailand spread throughout the minds of politicians within the country.
Even years later, this mentality persisted as Thailand’s 2008 Interior Minister, Chalerm Yubamrung, had a similar stance on the drug trade saying, “For drug dealers if they do not want to die, they had better quit staying on that road… drugs suppression in my time as Interior Minister will follow the approach of Thaksin. If that will lead to 3,000-4,000 deaths of those who break the law, then so be it. That has to be done … For those of you from the opposition party, I will say you care more about human rights than drug problems in Thailand.”
Duterte’s rhetoric is eerily similar, and the comparison is difficult to miss. He has been quoted repeatedly insulting the international community, specifically U.S. President Barack Obama, refusing to acknowledge the problem with his decision to systematically kill thousands without judiciary processes and adamantly discredits any outside advice.
Similarly to Thaksin, Duterte’s targeting has been sporadic and often inaccurate. In the same way Thaksin had a “Black List”, Duterte holds his own “list” of alleged offenders. These lists have not been proven to have any validity or accuracy.
This explosion of violence has fallen mostly on low-level dealers, drug users and even journalists. Although Duterte has named many police generals who are notorious for protecting drug lords, it is still to be seen whether or not they have all been tried or convicted.
Overall, Thaksin’s ‘war on drugs’ ultimately imploded — diminishing democracy in Thailand to a degree. Overall, the war had no long term effect on drug trade as dealers found new methods of distribution and facilitated a new era of mass drug circulation.
Since President Duterte took office on June 30, 2016, there has been over 3,600 extrajudicial killings throughout the Philippines.
These deaths have been carried out by police, mercenaries, and civilian vigilantes. All of these killings have gone without due process and the cases are not open to legal scrutiny or court proceedings. There are over three million drug addicts in the Philippines today and that is a problem recognized by the world.
However, rights groups and international organizations are making it very clear that “cleansing” the entire drug-using population is not the solution.
IDPC advocates alternative solutions to the drug crisis that is currently plaguing the ASEAN region. They have been critical of ASEAN’s agreed approach to drugs, specifically criticizing their vision for a drug-free ASEAN which creates unreasonably punitive methods towards all drug-related activities.
Ultimately, the approach to drug related crimes in the Philippines needs significant reform. There needs to exist an obtainable outlet where addicts can find recovery opportunities, with an emphasis on community-level poverty resolutions. Addressing the root of the problem needs to occur, rather than more mass killings and a general acceptance of violence with impunity.
Some countries like Brazil, for example, are embracing new and effective changes and reforms to drug crimes and addiction that look promising.
Lai concluded, “If drugs cannot be eradicated even from prisons, how could it be possible for them to be eradicated from a country? If a government is genuine in wanting to protect its citizens, it would take a health and human rights approach to managing drug-related problems.”
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent