Thursday, 3 April 2008

'There was no special squad licensed to kill, and with me in charge, that won’t be allowed' - Thai Government Launches New Anti-Drug Campaign

The Thai Government yesterday launched its new war on drugs, which many fear may result in a repeat of the thousands of extra-judicial killings and other human rights abuses that took place in 2003. Interior Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung attempted to ease such fears by stating that would be no infringements on civil liberties, and that he has never said that he has "a policy about an extra-judicial killing."

However, the government's continuing refusal to accept responsibility for the 2003 killings and to bring those responsible to justice casts a shadow over such promises, as does the renewed use of blacklists, which may also include members of a suspects family.

The last war on drugs had devastating effects on HIV prevention among people who inject drugs in Thailand as many were driven underground and away from existing services for fear of being caught, being subjected to coercive treatment or losing their lives. That a renewed war on drugs may have the same effect is, of course, a central concern of HIV, harm reduction and human rights advocates.

A video of the launch at the Thai Parliament is available (untranslated) here

Transcript from a 'Dateline' Special Issue, broadcast last night on Australian TV.

Thailand, where just a few hours ago, the Prime Minister officially announced another war on drugs in that country. The last crackdown five years ago unleashed a frenzy of killing which left 2,500 people dead. Back then, observers claimed it was the Thai police behind many of those shootings. So, could we see a similar outcome this time? David O'Shea has been on the spot trying to find out.

REPORTER: David O’Shea

This is Khao San Road, the famous backpacker strip in Bangkok. Anyone coming here in the next six months to indulge in ecstasy, ice or other illegal drugs should think twice.

POLICE, (Translation): I’d like to thank everyone here, it’s almost midnight. But you have to stay up to fight this problem.

Although it has only just started, Thailand's police are prepped and ready for war on drugs – the sequel.

POLICE, (Translation): You know what you have been assigned to do.

Tonight, they are out collecting urine samples to test for drugs. Strangely, they target just one of the many nightclubs in this area and they test only Thais. Anyone from overseas is left out. It all seems a bit stage-managed to me, a PR exercise designed to show the police as a friendly, benevolent force and skirt around their terrible reputation.

KRAISAK CHOONHAVAN, OPPOSTITION MP: The police in Thailand are probably one of most corrupt corps anywhere in the world.

Despite these concerns, as Thailand launches its new anti-drugs campaign it's the police who will once again be at the forefront of government policy. The last war, five years ago, was the real deal. In the first 15 days over 500 people were killed. Death tallies were presented like sports results on TV bulletins but the authorities ordered an end to that when the toll started rising too quickly for living-room comfort.

Many of the killings, many of murders and assassins are carried out by policemen as hired assassins.

GRANDMOTHER, (Translation): He was one and a half years old here.

One month into the 2003 killing spree, Nong Fluke was the first child to die.

GRANDMOTHER, (Translation): He was a growing child and if he was still alive... he would have been in Year Eight. He was a very cute young boy.

Since his death, his grandmother talks to his spirit daily and is still fighting for justice.

GRANDMOTHER, (Translation): I pray to him “Fluke, help me win this case. Then I can come and be with you.” I raised him, I loved him more than my own child.

Nong Fluke's father was arrested in front of this market with 6,000 amphetamine pills in a police sting operation. His mother was waiting in the car. When she saw what happened she took off.

Witnesses say police opened fire on the car as it drove away. Nong Fluke was asleep in the back and killed with two bullets to the chest. His mother managed to run into this market and hide under a table, but she was found, handcuffed and dragged away, never to be seen again.

Nong Fluke's uncle says police admitted at the time that they accidentally killed the boy, but five years on, no-one has been prosecuted.

UNCLE, (Translation): There was no way to make police accountable for the deaths. From the day the war on drugs was declared, there were over 2500 deaths. But there’s not one case where the police involved have been charged.

The previous government set up a committee to investigate the thousands of killings in 2003. It ruled that over half of those killed had nothing to do with drugs.

KRAISAK CHOONHAVAN: Few drug dealers, big major dealers and producers were killed.

Kraisak Choonhavan was a member of the committee. The former senator, now opposition MP, ridicules the official version of events that says rival gangsters killed each other.

KRAISAK CHOONHAVAN: Many of those who were killed were first-time users, small petty dealers, police informers, innocent people who inadvertently got in the way, political activists, enemies of the local powers.

THAKSIN SHINAWATRA, PRIME MINISTER (Translation): We declare war, a final war to defeat narcotic drugs once and for all.

From the outset, the architect of the offensive was the policeman who became prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. He used strong language to demonise anyone using or selling drugs. A recently leaked document reveals how that language was translated into policy.

KRAISAK CHOONHAVAN: This is an order from the permanent secretary from the Ministry of Interior, It says instructions here, those who sells and produce drugs should treated either... arrested and imprisoned, dies from extrajudicial killing or dies from other reasons. This is an order to kill.

It's not something the authorities now want to discuss. The national police spokesman dismisses it as "history", but I press him anyway for his views on the letter.

LT. GEN. WATCHARAPOL PRASARNRAJKIT, POLICE SPOKESMAN: When you ask me my opinion, I think as... it would be difficult for me to give my own opinion. This is a history.

REPORTER: But even so, you speak Thai, what does it mean to you? Does that mean, does that show to you that police were given instructions to act very firmly against suspected drug dealers, even to the point of killing them?

LT. GEN. WATCHARAPOL PRASARNRAJKIT: I don't think the document indicates what you say, because if it indicate like that, the people who issue the order might be in jeopardy.

REPORTER: But this is the thing, the former PM, Thaksin, was quoted in the foreign press recently saying that whoever is responsible should be tried. Now isn't the person responsible the person who signs that letter. Shouldn't that man under Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior be brought to trial for asking for the death of...

LT. GEN. WATCHARAPOL PRASARNRAJKIT: I think we should stop for a while. Let me clear to you some issue before we go on.

REPORTER: No, please, why, why can't you explain to me now?


This is the Interior Ministry which helped draw up the blacklists of users and dealers targeted by police in the last war. The current Interior Minister, Chalerm Yoobumrung, was not in office at the time, but as a former policeman he strongly denies allegations of police misconduct and says no such behaviour will be tolerated in this new blitz.

CHALERM YOOBUMRUNG, INTERIOR MINISTER, (Translation): There was no special squad licensed to kill, and with me in charge, that won’t be allowed.

Despite the leaked Interior Ministry letter, the new minister is holding to the official line that the deaths were almost entirely the result of gang warfare.

CHALERM YOOBUMRUNG, (Translation): The criminals were killing each-other, the more we cracked down the more careful the thugs were. To cover their tracks, there were more pre-emptive killings. No deaths were caused by our officials. Of course, there may have been some mistakes, some errors, I don’t deny that.

With a new drug war about to start on the streets of Thailand, many fear another bloodbath.

SUNAI PHASUK, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: The language this government use is very similar to the language used by the Thaksin Shinawatra government in 2003, that this is a war and we need to get rid of enemy of the nation at all costs. And the enemy in this case means drug traffickers and blacklists are now being prepared again.

According to Sunai Phasuk from Human Rights Watch, this new offensive could be even worse than the last. He says the Justice Minister has requested that blacklists include three generations of any suspect's family as well.

SUNAI PHASUK: Because this time it is not just the suspects themselves who can be subject to arrest or much more worse things that can happen to them, including extrajudicial killings, but also extended members of their families could also be subjected to the same fate. Now, that is very, very disturbing.

That more killings are on the way is almost inevitable. The Interior Minister in charge of the new crackdown is not known for mincing his words. He's already given this chilling warning.

CHALERM YOOBUMRUNG, (Translation): I talked about drugs in Parliament on the day the policy was announced. I said “If you don’t want to die, then don’t travel this path.”

REPORTER: This new war on drugs that's about to start, are we to expect bodies lining the streets like last time, thousands of dead again? How many this time do you think will be eliminated?

LT. GEN. WATCHARAPOL PRASARNRAJKIT: I don't think so, I don't think so.

REPORTER: Are you expecting this time to catch more of the big-time dealers, because they seemed to get away last time?

LT. GEN. WATCHARAPOL PRASARNRAJKIT: We always look to the major criminal group, international syndicates. I think as a police officer we have to do that, but at same time we have to catch the small-time, the pusher on the street.

After the military-led coup against prime minister Thaksin, there were hopes that justice might be served for the victims of the first drug war. But with Thaksin's return five weeks ago and the election of a pro-Thaksin government once again, the prospects for justice are fading. In the case of Nong Fluke, police say they have new evidence which proves a mysterious man on a motorbike did the shooting. It's a revelation the Interior Minister has clearly accepted as fact.

The bullet found in Fluke’s body did not come from the gun belonging to the policeman who was arrested. Forensics have proved that.

And he doesn't put much stock in eyewitness accounts that police took Nong Fluke's mother away.

CHALERM YOOBUMRUNG, (Translation): We still do not know who took her, we still don’t know if Fluke’s mother is dead or alive. It’s all hearsay, what people suspect.

KRAISAK CHOONHAVAN: What we have clearly now is an attempt, very audacious and apparent attempt to dismiss any cases of state officers using violence against people illegally.

GRANDMOTHER, (Translation): I have fought this far, I just want justice for my grandchild and my daughter. How could she just disappear?

UNCLE, (Translation): I would like to tell this government, in their war on narcotic drugs, I’d like to say to the officals.. the way they treat suspects.. When you arrest them, deal with them by legal process, don’t falsely accuse them or beat them up or torture them.

Already there are fears that due process is being ignored. Although, technically, the new war has only just begun, Sunai Phasuk from Human Rights Watch is monitoring several cases in Thailand's north which suggest a familiar pattern is already emerging.

SUNAI PHASUK: Heavily armed officials, government officials in plain-clothes were hunting down two men travelling on motorcycle who ended up dead with guns in their hands, but there was no proof that they were trying to shoot the police, they were trying to resist the arrest attempt. But they ended up dead and this footage was shown on TV during midday news and then evening news. This is a very disturbing reminiscence of 2003.

KRAISAK CHOONHAVAN: Violent and powerful leaders sometimes cannot be persecuted in their own countries where they can exercise so much power that the judiciary system, the process of law, justice, does not exist, like it does not exist in Thailand right now.

SUNAI PHASUK: We are heading toward another period in which government policy on drug suppression could lead to very serious human rights violations, murdering suspects without any proof of evidence, a complete destruction of due process of law and judiciary process in Thailand. This is another world completely different from travel brochure inviting tourists to come to Thailand. It is not a land of smile, it is a murderous country.