New Thai Leadership Plans Drug Crackdown

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A new war on drugs proposed by the Thai government prompts memories of a previous effort that cost 2,500 lives. Rights groups fear the human cost of a new crackdown.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In Thailand, methamphetamines are a growing problem. When the country's four-month-old government announced a new war on drugs, it was greeted positively by many Thais. But human rights activists have responded with dismay. They say that the last war on drugs begun in 2003 led to as many as 2,800 deaths. Activists say Thai police carried out extrajudicial killings.

NPR's Michael Sullivan reports.

Mr. SOMCHAI KUDRUNGRANG(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Like many Thais, Somchai Kudrungrang says he supports the idea of a new war on drugs. The 49-year-old father of two says he just hopes this one doesn't cost him a sister and a nephew like the last one did.

Mr. KUDRUNGRANG: (Through translator) Somchai's 9-year-old nephew Nongfuk(ph) was one of the first casualties in Thailand's last war on drugs in 2003, killed, he says, by two bullets to the chest while sitting in the back seat of a car driven by his mother as she attempted to flee a police sting operation that bagged her husband and 6,000 hits of methamphetamine.

Mr. KUDRUNGRANG: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: Somchai says the police opened fire on his sister's car without warning. When it came to a stop, police say the mother jumped out and ran. But witnesses say she was caught and taken away by two men with guns. She's been missing ever since. Somchai and many others believed that police killed his sister to keep her quiet. The police deny this. Sunee Pasuk(ph) of Human Rights Watch.

Mr. SUNEE PASUK (Human Rights Watch): The war in drugs in 2003 set a new low standard that in order to create political impression that the government and the Royal Thai Police is tough, it's decisive against drug traffickers, any means are acceptable, including killing, including abduction, including torture, including planting false evidence to justify criminal actions of the Thai police.

SULLIVAN: Nongfuk's case is not an isolated example. As many as 2,800 people were killed in the first war on drugs declared by then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But in the end, Human Rights Watch's Sunee Pasuk says...

Mr. PASUK: Most of the victims during the 2003 war on drugs were innocent people. The government own citing confirmed that of those 2,800 deaths, about 104,000, 105,000 of them have nothing to do with drugs at all.

SULLIVAN: But the war on drugs proved popular with ordinary Thais, which may help explain why the new government wants to give it another shot, and why the new Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej didn't appear too concerned with the idea of collateral damage at a March news conference.

Prime Minister SAMAK SUNDARAVEJ (Thailand): We must do. We have a war on drugs.

Unidentified Man: Are you worried about the innocent victims?

Prime Minister SUNDARAVEJ: It depends on what do you mean by innocent victim?

SULLIVAN: But the blunt-talking Samak may be reconsidering, following the outcry from human rights groups about the new crackdown - reconsidering, lawyer Somchai Honglawer(ph) says, because Samak's coalition government is not as strong as that of former prime minister Thaksin, who's power was near absolute.

Mr. SOMCHAI HONGLAWER (Attorney): For Mr. Samak, I think there is difference. It may be difficult for the government to force the policemen to comply with the policy in the way that it is against the law, like extra-judicial killing, because the policemen may feel that they might not be protected by this government.

SULLIVAN: And, in fact, in a month since this crackdown began, only a handful of people have died in extra judicial killings, compared to more than 500 during the first month of the last drug war. Sunee Pasuk of Human Rights Watch.

Mr. PASUK: It doesn't mean that there would be no killings in the future, because all those killings that took place in 2003, and no one has been prosecuted. No one has been punished. So, police, they operate with this understanding that they can do whatever they want to when they have the opportunity.

SULLIVAN: Lawyer Somchai Honglawer(ph), who investigated many complaints from the last war on drugs agrees.

Mr. SOMCHAI HONGLAWA (Lawyer): If this government can consolidate their power, as in the past of the Thairakthai Party...

Unidentified Man: Thaksin's party.

Mr. HONGLAWA: Thaksin party, yes. They may implement the war on drug in very, very explicit way.

SULLIVAN: The Royal Thai Police and the interior ministry, which is in charge of the new war on drugs, declined to comment for this story.

Michel Sullivan, NPR News.

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