Pubdate: Sun, 10 Jul 2011
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited
Author: Tania Branigan


At first the tablets made life easier for Santhisuk: they helped him
endure the long hours lugging heavy fabric bales in a Bangkok textiles

Gradually he noticed he was angrier and more aggressive on the days he
skipped them. But it was only when arrested for a third time - and
sent to rehabilitation at a Buddhist temple - that he admitted his
addiction to methamphetamine. Now clean, the 19-year-old labourer is
worrying about what will happen when he leaves the sanctuary of Wat
Saphan and returns home.

"It will be difficult because all my friends still take it. Drug use
is so widespread now that everybody thinks it's normal," he said.

Monks at the temple in Klong Toey, one of Bangkok's poorest areas, say
they have seen a huge increase in addiction rates. The problem has
spread far beyond the Thai capital.

The number of methamphetamine users in Thailand will reach 1.1 million
this year, the head of the country's anti-drug police told the
Guardian - equivalent to one in every 60 citizens. The number of users
has soared by 100,000 annually over the last five to six years, said
Lieutenant-General Atitep Panjamanond.

Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister in waiting, has already
pledged "a new war on drugs" to eliminate them within 12 months,
alarming human rights groups who fear a repeat of her brother's 2003

More than 2,500 people died in three months after Thaksin Shinawatra
ordered police to draw up blacklists of suspected dealers and act
"decisively and without mercy". Though the police blamed gang crime
for most of the deaths - they said 68 were shot by officers "in self-
defence" - human rights groups say there is compelling evidence of
extra-judicial killings. A committee later reported that more than
half the dead, including a nine-year-old boy, had not been involved in
the drugs trade.

But the campaign was hugely popular and as drug use rises, many want a
return to tough action.

"Personally, I think the killings were a good thing. If you leave it
to the courts [dealers] just cycle in and out of prison," said Aminna
Bedinlae, 84, who lost her son to drugs and now runs anti-abuse
programmes in Klong Toey, where 46 residents were shot.

Substance abuse had always been rife in the Bangkok slum, but in the
past glue-sniffing was more common, said the 84-year-old. "Now they
start off sniffing glue at six or seven and move on ...
[Methamphetamine] is more expensive so they get involved with crime -
theft or burglary- and it makes them more aggressive.

"My neighbour's son steals from the family and demands 300 baht [for
drugs] every day. If she hasn't got it, he hits her." Drivers and
labourers have long relied on methamphetamine tablets - known here as
yaba or "crazy drug" - to sustain them through gruelling work

But Atitep said recreational use was extremely common and that
children as young as 13 are taking it, with five- and six-year-olds
being used as mules. Last month the public health minister said 6,700
children aged 7 to 17 were rehabilitated in the first half of this

Experts warn regular use can lead to addiction and psychiatric
problems, and say the drug is associated with violent and aggressive
behaviour. Atitep said about 70% of methamphetamine comes across the
Burmese border and blamed ethnic militias for churning out more drugs
to fund their fight against the regime. The price of a tablet has
fallen to as little as 150 baht (=A33) in places; half the 2004 price.
His department seized 33m tablets in 2009, and 60m last year.

"That doesn't give me pleasure, because there is a lot more supply,"
the police chief said. "Today we seize 1m tablets. Tomorrow they
produce 2m."

One of his teams had just seized 30,000 tablets in Nakhon Pathom
province. But officers who traced the gang bosses behind the deal
discovered they were already jailed and had continued to trade via
smuggled mobile phones.

Atitep said changes in values and society were contributing to
increasing drug use. Others say the economic fall out from 2008's
global downturn, and the distraction of authorities by political
turmoil, have exacerbated problems. Some allege that corrupt officers
are facilitating the trade.

At Wat Saphan, monks fear another crackdown would only push problems

"When Thaksin came along it was brutal. There was shooting - bam, bam,
bam - and were the results worth it?" asked one monk, Phra Kru Manit.
"Do you know who the kingpins are? Do you know which officials are
involved? Deal with that, then deal with the problem on the streets."
The real solution lay in rehabilitation programmes and better
educational and economic opportunities for residents, he argued.

Yingluck told AFP before the election that she would "handle the drugs
policy with care [for] human rights".

Montira Kantapin, a spokeswoman for Yingluck's Puea Thai party, said a
working group was considering options.

"No one is disputing the government's desire to take on the drugs
industry. It is the means we are concerned about," said Benjamin
Zawacki, Amnesty International's south-east Asia researcher.

Sunai Phasuk of fellow charity Human Rights Watch said Yingluck's
pledge to eradicate drugs was the group's biggest concern.

The outgoing government had identified suspects in a similar way but
"with the Democrats' approach they are sent to a bootcamp facility
[without proper medical help to quit]; with Thaksin's approach they
might end up dead," he said.

He said that many of those killed in the 2003 crackdown had been
"victims of personal revenge or sloppy categorisation". One couple was
shot dead after acquiring suspicious wealth; it later emerged that
they had won the lottery.
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