When Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared a three-month, all-out war against drug traffickers starting Feb. 1, few blinked. Thai politicians are fond of warlike rhetoric, and similar pledges had been heard before, including from Mr. Thaksin, a former policeman.
That was before the campaign began. Now Thaksin has a slew of statistics to back up his tough talk, including several thousand arrests and substantial drug seizures. But the figure that alarms observers is the number of killings linked to the campaign. More than 500 drug-related deaths were counted in the first three weeks, according to the government - including the death of a 9-year-old boy caught in the middle of a sting operation here last weekend.
Most of the dead have been on a police blacklist of suspected dealers, raising fears among human-rights groups and opposition politicians that Mr. Thaksin is encouraging police to use lethal tactics to hit back at traffickers.
"This current campaign seems stronger [than past antidrug campaigns], and that worries us," says Srirak Plipat, director of Amnesty Thailand. "We call on the government to respect human rights and bring drug dealers to trial, not just execute them."
Drug-related violence is nothing new in Thailand, a nation crisscrossed by smuggling routes, particularly along the Burma border. Still, the surge in killings is spotlighting the country's human rights record. Some critics say there are strong echoes of Thailand's past, when military rulers used similar tactics against political opponents.
"We're starting to build a democratic society in Thailand, but I think this campaign will become a big obstacle.... The principle of democracy is the rule of law, but this is not the rule of law," says Somchai Homla-or, who chairs the human-rights committee of Thailand's Law Society.
Police say 22 of the more than 500 deaths so far were suspects resisting arrest. The rest, they say, were drug dealers or addicts killed by associates trying to eliminate potential informants.
Three Thai police police officers were arrested and charged with murder Monday in the 9-year-old boy's death. But government officials insist that police are following procedures in trying to track down suspects. "I think human rights activists shouldn't worry too much about these traffickers' lives," Interior Minister Wan Muhammad Nor Matha told reporters last week.
Before the campaign began, Mr. Matha issued a blunt warning, saying that drug dealers "will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace. Who cares? They are destroying our country."
Analysts say such talk resonates loudly with voters, particularly among the middle class who want to shield their children from the methamphetamine, known as "ya ba," that has ensnared millions of Thais. Most seizures in the current campaign have been of "ya ba." According to a Bangkok University poll released Monday, 92 percent of Thais support the campaign, even while 31 percent reported fears that they might be killed by drug gangs or the police during a raid.
"I think the prime minister knows the mood of the public.... The drugs issue is one which offers him a chance to boost his popularity," says Panitan Wattanyagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.
Even human rights activists admit that it's proving difficult to draw Thailand's attention to alleged abuses, given public prejudice against anyone involved in the drug trade. Thailand's National Commission on Human Rights says it wants to hear from relatives of slain suspects on the police blacklist who have a grievance, but few have been willing to speak out so far.
Some antidrugs campaigners point out that police need to fight fire with fire if they want to stop armed traffickers. "I don't deny that some police are taking advantage of the situation ... but up in the hills there are people with arms carrying (speed) pills, and they are ready to shoot first," says Disanadda Disakul, director of a royal foundation in northern Thailand that runs opium crop-substitution programs.
Thaksin has vowed to rid "every square inch" of Thailand of drugs by Apr. 30, even going so far as to set an exact deadline of 9 p.m., and says he will demote provincial officials and police chiefs who don't produce results.
While the campaign appears to have disrupted supplies - methamphetamine has reportedly tripled in price - the government has yet to ensnare senior state officials and businessmen suspected of involvement. Thaksin says he's prepared to go after the "big fish" next.