As drug trafficking revives, Thais back another harsh crackdown

In 2003, a violent government antidrug campaign resulted in more than 2,500 deaths.

By day, Bangkok's largest slum broils under a scorching sun. Schoolchildren in crisp uniforms scuttle past sidewalk food vendors. But at night, say local activists, the dockside lanes of Khlong Toey belong to peddlers of methamphetamine pills, known to Thais as ya ba, or crazy medicine.

Wanlop Hirikul, a community leader and radio broadcaster, has been here before. Until 2003, his district was overrun with dealers hawking meth pills. Then came a violent but popular antidrug campaign led by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that disrupted trafficking networks and forced tens of thousands of addicts into rehabilitation camps.

Today, the situation is reversing. "It's getting worse. The drugs are coming back to our community … where there used to be one dealer on the street, now there are three," Mr. Wanlop says.

Thai authorities are facing a spike in meth sales in poor communities. Counternarcotics officials warn that political instability is emboldening illegal drug manufacturers in Burma (Myanmar) who smuggle millions of pills into Thailand and across Southeast Asia, including growing markets in Cambodia and Laos.

The apparent failure of the military junta, which ousted Thaksin in 2006, to curb drug trafficking has proved a political gift to opponents. Officials in the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party (PPP) won the largest number of seats in Dec. 23 parliamentary elections, the first since the coup, after vowing to revive the "war on drugs."

That pledge pleases community leaders who want a firmer hand, but alarms human rights groups who monitored the 2003 crackdown, when more than 2,500 people died in extrajudicial killings. Thaksin has repeatedly blamed the slayings on internecine gang violence.

PPP deputy leader Chalerm Yubamrung last month pledged to ramp up suppression and reduce demand through treatment. Asked about 2003, Mr. Chalerm, a former interior minister, said it was a "misunderstanding" that the authorities were responsible. "There won't be any victimization of innocent people. Those who were affected were not the real innocents," he told the Bangkok Post.

But a junta-appointed panel recently concluded that more than half of those slain had no links to the drug trade. The panel blamed a government "shoot-to-kill" policy that used flawed police blacklists of suspected traffickers. It recommended compensation to victims' families.

But the panel has no judicial powers and its findings have been overshadowed by the jockeying to form a new government.

That leaves Thaksin's allies free to restart an aggressive campaign, says Sunai Pasuk, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. "People need to be brought to court, not executed on the street as we saw under Thaksin…[PPP leaders] show no remorse towards what happened in 2003 and that's very scary," he says.

In Khlong Toey, home to some 135,000 residents, activists say the crackdown was a justifiable response. "If you think about the 2,000 or more people who died, you should compare that to the effect they had on the people who bought their drugs, which is a much larger number," he says.

A 2004 survey by the Asia Foundation found widespread acceptance for get-tough policies against drug dealers and human traffickers. An average of 67 percent of respondents said that extrajudicial killings were permissible in such cases.

Chartchai Suthiklom, a senior adviser to the Office of the Narcotics Control Bureau, said the controversy stirred by Thaksin shouldn't stop police from taking on traffickers. He warns that smuggling of meth into Thailand is on the rise after falling sharply between 2003-2006. "Aggressive and serious suppression doesn't mean killing people. We can use the law for suppression," Wanlop says.

Despite its domestic popularity, the 2003 campaign may have unwittingly contributed to worsening situations in neighboring countries. Tougher interdiction efforts along the Thai-Burma border forced smugglers to explore alternative overland routes into Thailand through Laos and Cambodia, as well sea routes via Malaysia.

"You could say that Thaksin's war on drugs was a disaster for these countries because the supply routes through the Golden Triangle now go through Laos and Cambodia and to Malaysia. These countries began as transit routes; now they've become consumers," says Jeremy Douglas, a regional coordinator for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Bangkok.

That matters little to Nittaya Phrompochuanboon, a social worker at an educational foundation in Khlong Toey. At night, she joins volunteers who patrol, keeping an eye out for drug dealers. But their anonymous tip-offs to the local police rarely lead to arrests.

"How can the police not know who the traffickers are, when the neighbors see that they're selling drugs?" she asks.

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