THAILAND: PM Targets Drug Traffickers Ahead of July Poll

  • by Marwaan Macan-Markar (bangkok)
  • Wednesday, June 29, 2011
  • Inter Press Service

On a recent muggy night, the 46-year-old leader of the coalition government ended his trail of campaign stops by visiting a checkpoint manned by the police on the south-western edge of this sprawling capital. Through the evening, officers wielding nightsticks and torches randomly stopped vehicles to search them for any sign of narcotics.

'Concerns about drugs in the communities are a major worry,' the British-born, Oxford-educated leader told IPS as he made his way through a swarm of local television cameras to survey the security post. 'Raising this as an election issue is one of our key campaign messages.'

It was a welcome message for close to 100 supporters of Abhisit’s Democrat Party from a nearby working-class neighbourhood. They received him with cheers, red roses, a garland of marigolds, and slogans on white boards, one of which read, 'We are happy that the prime minister cares about drug suppression.'

Earlier in the day, Abhisit had shared some of his concerns about the inroads narcotics were making into urban and rural communities during a campaign stop at a youth centre in a historic part of Bangkok. 'I know how drugs can ruin a family. I understand this from the perspective of a family man,' he told nearly 300 people who had come to listen to him, among them former drug users.

The move to highlight the 'war on drugs' as an election issue follows the early success the two-and-a- half-year coalition government had in going after narcotics networks across this Southeast Asian kingdom. One particular drug in the government’s crosshairs is methamphetamine, known locally as 'ya ba,' which means 'crazy medicine.'

A combined effort by the police and the military since 2009 has resulted in 'the number of ya ba pills available slashed to 140 million because it has become difficult to distribute,' reveals Col. Fuangvich Aniruth-Deva, secretary to the minister of justice. 'We estimate that nearly 240 million pills often enter the market annually.'

The military guarding the country’s borders with Burma, or Myanmar, is the first line of defence in what the government calls its 'Five Fences Policy' to slash the ubiquitous drug trade. 'The police’s job is to stop the movement of drugs inside the country,' the justice ministry official told IPS in describing the policy that also includes rehabilitation of drug users.

Figures by the U.N. agency fighting drugs and crime confirm the spike in the methamphetamine trade, which is traced to the factories inside Burma producing these pills, which are then smuggled into Thailand. In 2009, Thai officials confiscated over 26.6 million 'ya ba' pills, twice the amount seized in 2006, over 13.8 million pills, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Some 14.3 million pills were seized in 2007 and 22.1 million pills in 2008.

The trend mirrors the swelling number of arrests for drug-related offences. In 2006, the number of people arrested for trading in methamphetamine pills was 60,680; the figure almost doubled to 118,613 two years later. The number dropped slightly to 112,956 in 2009.

'Thailand faces a serious problem from the trafficking trends, importation and the prevalence of methamphetamine,' says Gary Lewis, head of UNODC’s East Asia and Pacific office, based in Bangkok. 'I don’t think anyone can claim they are doing a phenomenal job on drug control.'

But the incumbent government’s efforts to suppress narcotics networks mark a dramatic departure from the more brutal 2003 'war on drugs' that then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra unleashed. Over 2,500 people were killed during that bloody campaign, with many police stations having 'black lists' containing names of alleged drug users who became victims, human rights groups revealed at the time.

Thaksin, who was ousted in a September 2006 military coup and lives in exile to avoid a jail term for corruption, launched the 'war on drugs' in the wake of widespread national concern about the high number of Thais — some as young as 15 years — being hooked on methamphetamine. Reports at the time estimated that between 500 million to 700 million 'speed' pills were flowing into the country annually from the narcotics labs in Burma.

The Abhisit administration’s seeming velvet glove approach in its anti-drug campaign has become pivotal given who the incumbent is up against in the July elections: Yingluck Shinawatra, the youngest sister of Thaksin, who is heading the opposition Phue Thai (For Thais) political party.

'We have more to do because people have suffered from drugs in the community,' said Abhisit, who enjoys an edge over Phue Thai on this score. Thaksin’s lack of remorse more than seven years after his iron-fisted campaign ended has helped the incumbent, as has Yingluck’s somewhat lukewarm assurances that a future Phue Thai administration will target the drug problem by respecting 'human rights.'

But the Abhisit administration’s use of the military to be part of an anti-drug task force has unnerved some communities, such as those in housing estates along the eastern end of Bangkok. 'We were scared when the soldiers came to our community, saying they were checking for drugs,' admitted Thongpoon Insanet, who runs a noodle shop in one community. 'What are they looking for, since the police have already said ours is a ‘white area,’ for being almost drug free?'

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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