Harsh price of Thai drug wars - past and future

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 March, 2008, 12:00am

The fondness in rural Thai villages for the free-spending policies of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is well known. His delivery of dirt-cheap health care and easy credit secured a lasting engagement with the long-ignored north and northeast.

What is less understood is the depth of support in the countryside for the controversial crackdown on drug dealing that started in 2003, the height of Thaksin's five-year rule.

In a village in the northeast, visitors are regaled with tales of how the crackdown smashed decades-old networks. First it was Golden Triangle opium and heroin, and then came the pills, particularly the methamphetamines known as yaa-baa, meaning 'crazy pill'.

'They've given us our young men back,' an elderly woman in Buri Ram province said. She explained how drug addiction had once robbed her village of its vital labour source, and driven people to domestic violence and suicide.

But such success came at a high price. More than 2,500 people died in what international rights groups condemned as extrajudicial killings. The Interior Ministry announced 15 days into the campaign that uniformed and plain-clothes police had shot dead 596 people, eight of them 'in self-defence', Human Rights Watch said in its June 2004 report, 'Not Enough Graves'.

Police drew up blacklists with weak evidence, sometimes absent of standards. People were mistakenly listed - two victims seen as supposedly suspiciously wealthy were in fact lottery winners. Other allegations surfaced against grass-roots political activists, particularly in the south, a stronghold of the opposition Democratic Party.

Poor police co-ordination resulted in the death of dozens of informers helping the military contain a worsening Muslim insurgency in the deep south, leading to an intelligence vacuum that has yet to be filled.

The military junta that toppled Thaksin went further than the international critics, describing it as a crime against humanity. An investigation the junta launched last year, aided by the National Human Rights Commission, found that as many as 1,000 people killed were innocent of drug links, but no police officer has been charged.

As the killings reached its peak, the Thaksin government sought to distance itself from the bloodshed. It repeatedly claimed that most of the killings were part of internal drug feuds, rather than police action.

Expect to hear more of that explanation in the weeks and months ahead. The new pro-Thaksin government headed by the People Power Party is eagerly reintroducing the policy amid signs that drugs are again flowing.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and Interior Minister Chalerm Yubamrung - both unabashed members of the far-right - are positively drooling with anticipation. Both like to talk tough and the looming crackdown has seen them at their most crude.

Mr Samak suggested another vigorous campaign but said that last time, police could have only killed a tiny fraction of the victims. He also glibly dismissed the killing of innocents. 'If they were innocent, why were they killed?'

Mr Chalerm warned parliament that thousands 'may have to die'. 'When we implement a policy that may bring 3,000 to 4,000 bodies, we will do it,' he said.

He was one of the most senior officials to meet Thaksin off his flight from Hong Kong on Thursday.

Sources in the far northern city of Chiang Rai, a traditional drug hub near the Golden Triangle, warn that the fearful innocent are already turning up to police stations to explain their wealth. Last time around, a pre-emptive visit to a police was not enough. Some were shot minutes after trying to explain themselves to local police.

Rights activists are urging a lawful and more thorough investigative approaches to tackle any new scourge. As the new government moves into top gear, their calls are unlikely to be heard.