TCS Daily

Thailand's "War" on Drugs

By Promporn Pramualratana - June 30, 2004 12:00 AM

When Thailand's prime minister, Taksin Shinawatra, proclaimed a three-month war on drugs last year, police or their "hired guns" are believed to have killed more than 2,200 persons without trial or legal representation. His pledge to King Bhumibol Adulyadej was to wipe out narcotics traffickers in order to protect the country's youth.

Thailand's fight against drugs has been going on for decades particularly since the northern border areas merge with Laos and Myanmar to form the infamous Golden Triangle, one of the world's major sources of heroin.

The nation-wide drug crackdown is unique in that many feel it was a license for police to kill. Incentives were given to provincial police chiefs in the form of quotas for the heads of "narcotics dealers." If they arrested the required number of persons, they were rewarded; failing to do so could result in being sacked.

The police, provincial and village chiefs, and Ministry of Justice officials made a mad rush to collect names from any source. This resulted in the capture of tens of thousands of alleged drug users who were forcefully placed in the hundreds of drug rehabilitation centers that practically sprang up overnight. The deaths resulted mainly from shootings between police and suspected traffickers. It is believed that crossfire killed innocent women and children. The government attributed the unknown deaths as silencing murders committed by rival narcotics gangs.

The National Human Rights Commission reported a trend that many were killed on their way back from the police station, where they had been called to clarify why their names appeared on a blacklist. Many said that a number of the murders were committed after people returned from interviews at the police station. At the time, people were afraid to go for treatment for fear of being caught. According to the National Human Rights Commission report, witnesses saw many dead corpses with hands clasped together as if saying, "Please don't shoot."

In his December 5, 2003, birthday speech to the Thai people, the King commented that Taksin's crackdown exposed Thailand to criticism by international human rights groups. This was interpreted by some as a slap on the wrist for him.

Thailand used a criminal approach rather than a public health approach, driving drug users underground and making them more vulnerable to HIV infection. Prisoners face an even higher risk of HIV infection through lack of sterile needles and condoms.

Even though there is no HIV prevention information, prison authorities routinely deny drug use and sex. "Drug users need to be treated through a harm reduction approach -- doing whatever you can to support healthy behavior of that person without judgment," said Karyn Kaplan, the international advocacy coordinator for Thai Aids Treatment Action Group (TTAG). Fifty percent of injecting drug users in Thailand are HIV positive, the only AIDS-related statistics in Thailand whose prevalence has not gone down in 15 years. Twenty percent of all new HIV infections are related to injecting drugs, which in turn affects the sex partner.

Drug users are often denied health care, and if HIV infected, they are denied antiretrovirals (ARV). Health care providers normally advise users to avoid drugs by choosing reading or sports instead. "If you're going to support an injecting drug user to avoid HIV or Hepatitis C infection, the best way is to provide clean injecting equipment as part of a comprehensive approach to HIV prevention tailored to the realities of drug users," Kaplan said. "Thailand is going to be seen as the losers on the block in the region as Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia and China are already talking about needle exchange programs where users hand in dirty needles for sterile ones."

"While Taksin has declared victory for his drug war, he only succeeded in hiking up drug prices during that period," Kaplan said. Prices have already come down and the drugs are more easily available. The government says there are two million methamphetamine users and 800,000 heroin users, but NGO's say that the numbers are much higher.

The US, a major fund-giver to Thailand's anti-drug activities, provides related equipment and training. Although the Bush administration criticized Taksin's human rights record, the two countries are about to enter the US-Thai Free Trade Agreement. Because of stringent intellectual property restrictions on data exclusivity and extended patent protection, Thailand will be inhibited from producing generic drugs, namely ARV.

Many countries provide long-term methadone substitution therapy for drug users for withdrawal and to allow drug users to enjoy a more stable life. But Thai authorities primarily use a 45-day treatment program whereby methadone is abruptly reduced and replaced by sleeping pills. This method is far inferior to the proven effective approach of methadone maintenance therapy (MMT).

The Global Fund recently gave $1.3 million to the Thai Drug Users Network to implement HIV prevention, care and peer-driven support among injectors. "We're hopeful that the upcoming International Aids Conference will be a forum to discuss the best possible practice for the prevention of HIV Aids for drug users," Kaplan said.


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