Pubdate: Thu, 24 Jan 2008
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2008 The Economist Newspaper Limited


Back on the Offensive

The New Government Is Unlikely to Offer a Ceasefire. A New Crackdown

NO POLICY pushed by Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai prime minister
toppled in a coup in 2006, provoked as much controversy--or won as many
votes--as a bloody 2003 campaign against illegal drugs. Faced with
soaring methamphetamine abuse, Mr Thaksin ordered the police to draw
up blacklists of suspected traffickers and "to act decisively and
without mercy". The result was a shooting spree in which over 2,500
people died in three months. The police blamed gang violence;
human-rights groups accused the government of condoning extra-judicial
killings by the security forces.

Five years on, Mr Thaksin's political allies are heading back into
power and dusting down their get-tough message. Chalerm Yubamrung,
deputy leader of the People's Power Party, which will lead the new
government, is widely tipped to be the new interior minister. He has
promised another "war on drugs". This would include mandatory
treatment for addicts as well as efforts to staunch the flow of
methamphetamine from jungle laboratories in neighbouring Myanmar. On
the campaign trail, Mr Chalerm both denied there was any government
hand in the previous carnage, and claimed that no "innocent people"
were among the victims.

Yet a panel set up last year by the outgoing junta recently concluded
the opposite: over half of those killed in 2003 had no links to the
drugs trade. The panel blamed the violence on a government
"shoot-to-kill" policy based on flawed blacklists. But far from
leading to the prosecutions of those involved, its findings have been
buried. The outgoing interim prime minister, Surayud Chulanont, took
office vowing to right Mr Thaksin's wrongs. Yet this week he said
there was insufficient evidence to take legal action over the killings.

It is easy to see why the tide has turned. Sunai Phasuk, a researcher
for Human Rights Watch, a lobbying group, says that the panel's
original report named the politicians who egged on the gunmen. But
after the PPP won last month's elections, those names were omitted. It
is a depressing reminder that the law in Thailand can seem at the
service of its political masters, rather than the other way around.

On the streets of Khlong Toey, the largest slum in Bangkok, there is
nostalgia for Mr Thaksin's iron-fisted drugs policy. The 2003
crackdown drove up prices, smashed trafficking networks and forced
addicts into rehabilitation programmes. In drug-ravaged communities,
where the ends tend to justify the means, that was enough to turn Mr
Thaksin into a hero.

His downfall, and Thailand's political crisis, have sapped police
efforts to stop the traffickers. Wanlop Hirikul, a local activist,
says that where there was one dealer on the street, now there are
three. Supply is plentiful, and in Khlong Toey methamphetamine prices
are falling. Drug-treatment centres report rising numbers of addicts.
You might expect a military junta with sweeping powers to have kept up
the fight against such illicit activity. Anti-narcotics officials say
that drug seizures have risen since the military coup in September
2006. Yet that probably means even more of the stuff went unseized.
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