Jan 24th 2008 | BANGKOK
From The Economist print edition
The new government is unlikely to offer a ceasefire. A new crackdown looms
NO POLICY pushed by Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai prime minister toppled in a coup in 2006, provoked as much controversy—or won as many votes—as a bloody 2003 campaign against illegal drugs. Faced with soaring methamphetamine abuse, Mr Thaksin ordered the police to draw up blacklists of suspected traffickers and “to act decisively and without mercy”. The result was a shooting spree in which over 2,500 people died in three months. The police blamed gang violence; human-rights groups accused the government of condoning extra-judicial killings by the security forces.
Five years on, Mr Thaksin’s political allies are heading back into power and dusting down their get-tough message. Chalerm Yubamrung, deputy leader of the People’s Power Party, which will lead the new government, is widely tipped to be the new interior minister. He has promised another “war on drugs”. This would include mandatory treatment for addicts as well as efforts to staunch the flow of methamphetamine from jungle laboratories in neighbouring Myanmar. On the campaign trail, Mr Chalerm both denied there was any government hand in the previous carnage, and claimed that no “innocent people” were among the victims.
Yet a panel set up last year by the outgoing junta recently concluded the opposite: over half of those killed in 2003 had no links to the drugs trade. The panel blamed the violence on a government “shoot-to-kill” policy based on flawed blacklists. But far from leading to the prosecutions of those involved, its findings have been buried. The outgoing interim prime minister, Surayud Chulanont, took office vowing to right Mr Thaksin’s wrongs. Yet this week he said there was insufficient evidence to take legal action over the killings.
It is easy to see why the tide has turned. Sunai Phasuk, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, a lobbying group, says that the panel’s original report named the politicians who egged on the gunmen. But after the PPP won last month’s elections, those names were omitted. It is a depressing reminder that the law in Thailand can seem at the service of its political masters, rather than the other way around.
On the streets of Khlong Toey, the largest slum in Bangkok, there is nostalgia for Mr Thaksin’s iron-fisted drugs policy. The 2003 crackdown drove up prices, smashed trafficking networks and forced addicts into rehabilitation programmes. In drug-ravaged communities, where the ends tend to justify the means, that was enough to turn Mr Thaksin into a hero.
His downfall, and Thailand’s political crisis, have sapped police efforts to stop the traffickers. Wanlop Hirikul, a local activist, says that where there was one dealer on the street, now there are three. Supply is plentiful, and in Khlong Toey methamphetamine prices are falling. Drug-treatment centres report rising numbers of addicts. You might expect a military junta with sweeping powers to have kept up the fight against such illicit activity. Anti-narcotics officials say that drug seizures have risen since the military coup in September 2006. Yet that probably means even more of the stuff went unseized.
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