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By Michael Arnold
19 March 2003, Green Left Weekly

On February 1, Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra significantly upped the stakes in the war on drug users, resolving to make Thailand "drug free" within three months.

Given the level of drug use and distribution in Thailand, this will be a massive undertaking. Of the 62 million people living in Thailand, 5.9% aged 15 or over are reported to be users of amphetamines. Between 500 million and 700 million amphetamine pills are imported annually from drug laboratories located in Burma.

Thailand has long been known as the centre of the "Golden Triangle", the focus of South-East Asian heroin production. While many of the illicit networks involved in heroin production have now shifted to the production of methamphetamine, heroin remains a big part of the Thai drug market.

Grand government promises to create "drug-free" cities, provinces or countries are common. What makes the Thai campaign appallingly unique is the methods being employed by the Thai police force under the government's orders.

The official strategy calls for the systematic round-up and imprisonment of all drug users and dealers. The campaign is being coordinated from the district level, with the prime minister threatening demotions and disciplinary action against ranking police officers who do not meet its targets.

Senior police claim that dealers will be given the chance "to be converted" and addicts will "weaned off their habits". According to reports, at least 50,000 drug users have turned themselves in to the police. How the Thai regime will deal with such a demand on detox services is unclear; it is very likely users will be crammed into prisons, probably renamed as "hospitals", and subjected to mandatory withdrawal with little or no medical assistance or supervision.

The reason for the surrender by so many users becomes clear when the "unofficial" elements of the campaign are examined. "Drug dealers" are being murdered across Thailand; a BBC report on February 14 stated the death toll was 350 in two weeks -- more than 25 murders a day.

The police have taken responsibility for a small number of the deaths, claiming that they occurred when the police acted in "self-defence". The police claim the majority of killings result from inter- and intra-gang attacks, supposedly sparked by fears that those murdered were about to inform on drug gang activities to the police.

However, a number of prominent human rights groups have described the murders as extra-judicial executions. Somchai Homlaor, secretary general of the Asia Forum human rights group, stated: "The only sensible conclusion is that the police are sending out death squads."

Amnesty International has also protested against the killings. Director of Amnesty International's Thailand office Srirak Plipat said: "The government has implied through its policy in the anti-drug campaign that the authorities can use extrajudicial means to go after drug traffickers... The government is taking the campaign very seriously, and [has conveyed that it] will use violence to pursue it."

Unfortunately, Amnesty is only protesting against the "excesses" of the government's policy. The organisation has stated that it does not oppose the drug-war policies of the Thai government, which has also resulted in the arrest of more than 6900 suspected drug dealers.

"This goes for the public, too. The people support the drug-control campaign but they are not endorsing the extrajudicial killings", Srirak Plipat has stated in defence of Amnesty's position.

The systematic removal of liberty for around 60,000 largely disenfranchised Thais is surely a clear abuse of human rights, but Amnesty sees drug users only as "criminals" -- not bad enough to be shot willy-nilly, but certainly not worthy of the support due to political prisoners. If it was any other social minority being rounded-up and dragged off, human rights groups would undoubtedly be describing the "live-fire" phase of the Thai government's "war on drugs" by its true description: human rights atrocities.

Drug-user activists and advocates of harm reduction strategies from around the world will converge on Chiang Mai, Thailand, on April 6-10 for the annual International Conference on Reducing Drug-Related Harm. The Thai government will no doubt be keen to show off its "successes" in supply reduction.

Activists have resolved not to sit quietly in plush motels while Thais are being murdered in the streets outside. Solidarity actions are also being discussed by those not attending the conference.