Pubdate: Sat, 06 Aug 2016
Source: Straits Times (Singapore)
Copyright: 2016 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd.
Author: Tan Hui Yee, Thailand Correspondent


BANGKOK In a backroom heavy with sawdust, Mr Akkarin Puri, 33, 
carefully examines the veneer of a half-finished guitar.

There was a time when the craftsman's attention was more focused on 
inhaling the vapours from a pill of yaba - a methamphetamine - heated 
over a flame.

In fact, by the age of 21, his drug habit had landed him in juvenile 
detention at least six times and a military lock-up for 18 months.

There, he tried to rob a fellow addict to fund his next fix  and 
landed himself in jail for another eight years. It was while doing 
time in a particularly notorious prison, in Pathum Thani province 
next to Bangkok, that he saw up close one of the gravest consequences 
of the kingdom's long-running "war on drugs".

The cells were bursting at the seams, with 30 to 40 people crammed 
into an area the size of a living room. It was a luxury to sleep on 
his back. The fish and vegetables served for meals were "rotting", he says.

And illicit drugs were still available.

"I used to take yaba or Ice," he tells The Straits Times, referring 
to the street names for synthetic drugs. "But I changed to Valium in 
prison. I needed that to stay calm inside and make the time pass faster."

Tough, decades-old narcotics laws have crammed prisons in South-east 
Asia with petty offenders. But drug kingpins - shielded by a 
combination of corruption, official complicity and weak policing - 
have largely remained untouched, triggering a recent rethink of the 
drug control policies.

Myanmar lawmakers earlier this week lamented the ineffectiveness of 
their state's campaign against illicit drugs. But the problem is 
widespread, and can be seen starkly in the exploding trade in 
methamphetamines, of which the amount seized by the authorities in 
East and South-east Asia and Oceania more than tripled between 2008 
and 2013, to almost 42 tonnes, according to the United Nations Office 
on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

"The indicators are bad," says UNODC's regional representative Jeremy 
Douglas. "We don't see this trend reversing."


The highlands at the confluence of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos form 
the Golden Triangle, which is one of the world's biggest 
drug-producing and trafficking hubs.

In Myanmar, where the conflicts between ethnic armed groups and state 
military forces have reportedly been financed through drug trade, the 
laws exact a heavy toll on small-scale pushers and addicts.

Its 1993 Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law, for 
example, penalises drug users for not registering for medical treatment.

"Drug policies in Myanmar are repressive, outdated and ineffective, 
and they focus largely on arresting drug users and eradicating opium 
poppy," researcher Tom Kramer wrote in a report for the 
Amsterdam-based think-tank Transnational Institute last year.

In Cambodia, officials have cited drug cases - as well as lengthy 
pre-trial detention of drug suspects - as reasons for the steady rise 
in the prison population, which crossed 17,500 in October last year, 
according to a report by the Phnom Penh Post.

Over in Thailand, the sledgehammer approach to drug control means 
that even the possession of kratom leaves, which are chewed by some 
farmers for energy, can attract a jail term of up to one year or a 
fine of up to 20,000 baht (S$770) or both. The indigenous plant 
stimulates in small doses but sedates in high doses.

Yet Thai officials remember 1996 as the real turning point in its war 
on drugs. That was when the government classified methamphetamines as 
a dangerous narcotic, making those who use, produce or sell the 
substance liable for the harshest sentences. Anyone found to have 
produced, imported or exported methamphetamines could be jailed for 
life and fined up to five million baht.

Labourers who used a popular methamphetamine mixture called yaba or 
"crazy drug" as a stimulant suddenly found themselves at risk of 
being thrown into jail.

The kingdom's prison population ballooned from 80,000 in 1996 to the 
current 350,000, of whom 70 per cent are serving time for drug offences.

In a recent interview with The Straits Times,the Justice Ministry's 
deputy permanent secretary Vitaya Suriyawong - who headed the 
corrections department last year - conceded that the spike in 
detentions means prisons are grossly understaffed and ill-equipped, 
with a staff-inmate ratio of 1:30.

"The kitchen, mess hall... even the toilets were not enough," he says.

Inmates had to eat in shifts. And some prison factories had to be 
closed down to make space for living quarters.

In these chaotic, understaffed conditions, drugs also found their way 
into the cells.

Mr Kong, a Chiang Mai native who declines to give his real name, was 
jailed for six years in 2005 for drug use and being part of a gang 
fight that killed two people.

"It was like a reunion" in jail, he recalls.

But while his underworld connections gave him access to food, water 
and drugs in prison, it did not protect him from the illnesses that 
can spread when thousands of men are crammed together in squalid conditions.

"You wouldn't even think about going to the toilet at night because 
you would then lose your sleeping spot and have to sit all night," he 
says. "I developed a bad cough. I was so afraid of tuberculosis 
because many inmates who had that condition coughed all night."

By the time of his release in 2011, he had lost 10kg.


The fallout from Thailand's dismal drug war had disconcerted members 
of the judiciary for years, discloses constitutional court judge 
Jaran Pukditanakul. But many judges, bound by laws dictating minimum 
sentences for drug offences, were forced to send thousands behind bars.

"This justice system is not reducing the number of criminals," he 
tells The Straits Times.

"Instead, it is producing new traffickers and new sellers."

While drug pushers who are locked away are easily replaced by others 
on the streets, those behind bars "become even more efficient 
criminals with wider connections", he says.

"What we created became more harmful and more dangerous to our people 
than the drug itself." But changes are afoot. Thai authorities are 
now mulling over reclassifying certain types of addictive substances 
and even allowing for some controlled use under medical supervision.

Draft legal changes recently approved by the Cabinet will mete out 
more proportional sentences, and also emphasise rehabilitation over 
jail terms for drug addicts.

Justice Minister Paiboon Kumchaya tells The Straits Times he expects 
the new legal regime to be put in place before the term of his 
military government ends.

Over in Myanmar, work on revising drug laws started by the previous 
administration is now being continued in earnest by the new 
government led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi.

Among the draft changes on the table are reduced penalties for petty 
offenders, as well as scrapping the requirement for drug users to 
register themselves.

The general idea is to divert some resources from maintaining prisons 
to law enforcement, with a focus on catching big-time traffickers, 
says Mr Douglas.

Over in Singapore, where drug traffickers can be jailed and caned, 
the Government has refused to budge on its tough stance on drugs. 
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, addressing world leaders 
at the United Nations General Assembly in April, said: "For us, the 
choice is clear. We want a drug-free Singapore, not a drug-tolerant 
Singapore," he said.

Thai officials, meanwhile, are bracing themselves for the difficult 
task of convincing the public that what is considered a "softer" 
approach may be more effective in tackling the scourge of drugs in 
the long run.

They would have to convince people like Mr Akkarin, who kicked his 
drug addiction and started a new life with the help of a Christian 
aid group after being released from prison. Despite what he 
experienced in jail, he is adamant that reducing penalties would not help.

In fact, he approves of the "war on drugs" initiated by former prime 
minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2003, which was later associated with 
thousands of extrajudicial killings and coerced treatment of drug 
addicts. "If the laws are stricter, then people would be scared," Mr 
Akkarin insists.

For entire generations brought up on the "zero tolerance" rhetoric on 
drugs, anything other than harsh penalties may appear alien.

"We told them that narcotic drugs are bad, get rid of them all," 
recalls Justice Jaran. "It's not easy to educate society (now), 
particularly when you have to go against the concept that has been 
planted in their heads.

"It's like telling people in Thailand not to eat rice."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom