A chronology of Thailand’s “war on drugs”

Meryam Dabhoiwala, Researcher, Asian Legal Resource Centre

On 28 January 2003 Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra signed Prime Minister’s Order 29/2546, setting down guidelines for the “Concerted Effort of the Nation to Overcome Drugs”, widely known as the ‘war on drugs,’ to begin on February 1. Of Thailand’s sixty-three million citizens, three million—roughly five per cent—are estimated to use methamphetamines, or ‘crazy pills’. Most are youths, and the growth of drug use among them is widely viewed with alarm. Thaksin stated that “Illicit drugs are a menace to society. Our country will have no future if our children are addicted to drugs. It is the duty of every citizen to fight this drug menace.” [1]

Although the guidelines emphasized education and awareness, and the treating of drug users as patients rather than criminals, in practice the ‘war on drugs’ was managed in the manner implied by the expression: killing of enemies. A combination of incentives and warnings were used to have police eliminate as many suspected drug dealers, by whatever means possible, within the three months designated. The incentives were mainly financial, increasing bonuses to officers for drug hauls according to the size of the taking. Prime Minister Thaksin boasted that “at three Baht per methamphetamine tablet seized, a government official can become a millionaire by upholding the law, instead of begging for kickbacks from the scum of society”.[2] Warnings to government officers included threats to transfer, demote or sack those failing to produce evidence of success.

The information forming the base of the government’s drug war came from two types of lists compiled by various government agencies and departments – blacklists and watchlists. The Commissioner of the Narcotics Suppression Bureau stated that the names on the blacklists were of people who had been arrested or named in arrest warrants, while those on the watchlists were names of those pending investigation.[3] The lists were apparently prepared in August of 2002, as groundwork for the approaching drug war. Agencies were ordered to compile names of those individuals they suspected of being involved in the drug trade; the Interior Ministry received lists from provincial police, village headmen and district officers. These lists were submitted to the National Command Centre for Combating Drugs,[4] chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyuth. At that stage the government maintained that the lists were prepared scrupulously: lists were cross-checked, and any name appearing in just one list was deleted. Only names that appeared in several lists were added to the watchlist for further investigation. These individuals were then asked to come to the police station “for talks, which the police believe is the most effective and convenient way to find more information about drug-related activities,” claimed a police spokesperson.[5] Initially, the government aimed to remove all the names on the blacklist by the end of the three-month ‘war’, although this target was later modified.

Four persons were killed on the first day of the campaign. Police Commissioner General Sant claimed that police would only fire in self-defense. Interior Minister Wan Mohamad Noor Matha reaffirmed that “the police would abide by the law in their campaign against drug trafficking”.[6] However, he later defended killings and disappearances of targeted persons: “They [drug dealers] will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace. Who cares? They are destroying our country.”[7] The Prime Minister also endorsed this attitude, saying, “The government’s strategy is to smoke out pushers, who will be eliminated by their own kind. I don’t understand why some people are so concerned about them while neglecting to care for the future of one million children who are being lured into becoming drug-users.”[8] He later concluded, “[Murder] is not an unusual fate for wicked people.“[9]

By February 5, the Food and Drug Administration’s warehouse for storing seized narcotics was practically full and the Interior Minister said that there had been more than 2000 arrests, along with 3148 promises by former drug dealers to give up the drug trade.[10] At that date “unknown gunmen” had so far killed six people, but by February 13 the death toll—which the government was announcing publicly as evidence of its success—had escalated to 154.[11] Disturbingly, while the police denied responsibility for most extrajudicial killings, they were also unwilling to conduct necessary investigations into the deaths. According to Amnesty International, “Authorities are not permitting pathologists to perform autopsies and bullets are reportedly being removed from the corpses.”[12] And according to Dr Pornthip Rojanasunan, acting director of the Forensic Science Institute, in more than half of the cases seen by her the drugs appeared to have been planted on the victims after their deaths—jammed in pockets at unnatural angles.[13]

Among those killed were persons who had voluntarily joined police reform programs, in many cases months before the drug war began. One of them was Jamnian Nualwilai, a former drug peddler in Muang district of Ratchaburi, on February 13.[14] His wife believes the police killed him and blamed it on his old drug gang. Jamnian had joined a reform program two years ago, and sent in his urine every month to prove he was still clean. Five days before the killing, police commended Jamnian for his conduct and told him his name would be removed from the blacklist. “I had not the slightest idea that the delisting would end up with my husband being shot dead,” his wife Kik said. According to her, traffickers would be better off not joining government reform schemes, because “at least they would not be making themselves sitting ducks”.

Many people were also killed after going to the police station in response to their names being blacklisted. Boonyung Tangtong was one of ten persons in his neighborhood killed after surrendering to the police.[15] According to Boonyung’s 16-year-old son Adirek, before being shot in his own home his father had reported to the Na Chaliang police station. Adirek is certain the police killed his father, alleging, “They were all wearing name and rank tags around their necks, but they didn’t look familiar. They could have come from other places.”

In Chiang Rai, police even put their informers in jail after they found it difficult to meet government targets for arrests.[16] Chiang Rai had started its own anti-drug campaign in October 2001, which according to officials had yielded more than nine million methamphetamine pills and had caused 13,000 drug users to turn themselves in. Officials now had to scramble to fill the new government quotas or risk losing their jobs. On February 15 the Interior Minister was reported as having voiced his displeasure at certain provinces that were not meeting their quotas, warning that they would be assessed on February 19 and at that date sacked, transferred or demoted:

Any provincial governor or police chief who continues to take it easy … is weighing down the government’s war against drugs. They should check out history books about what King Naresuan did to his generals who failed to keep up with him on the battleground. The King had all of them beheaded.[17]
Initially, 90 per cent of the Thai population was reportedly behind the government’s war on drugs, however this was before children began dying.[18] The first child to be killed was a nine-year-old boy, Chakraphan Srisa-ard, who was shot on February 23 as police fired at the car carrying him and his mother. His father had already been arrested. One of the boy’s uncles stated, “The police kept shooting and shooting at the car. They wanted them to die. Even a child was not spared.”[19] The next child to be killed was a 16-month-old baby, shot in her mother’s arms by an “unknown gunman” on February 26.[20] A highland couple was shot dead on February 24 on suspicion of selling drugs.[21] Their three children were left homeless, the youngest of whom was a six-year-old girl. Since then, no evidence has been found to suggest the couple had any drug dealings. According to relatives, they “had to die to help make the state suppression records look good”. The assistant village headman noted the irony of their deaths: “The couple were killed even though their names did not appear on the drug blacklist, while a major drug dealer faced only minor punishment—a two night stay at a local police station.”

Such incidents also led people to question the accuracy of the government’s drug suspect lists. On February 25 Police Chief Sant admitted that the Interior Ministry’s list was “poorly prepared and could have affected innocent people”.[22] While this could be seen as a signal to his subordinates to ease up on the campaign to kill suspects, some critics believe it was simply an attempt to deflect public attention from the tragic death of Chakraphan Srisa-ard. Police Lieutenant General Chalermdej Chomphunuj also later admitted that “some people might have been mistakenly blacklisted, perhaps due to the carelessness of officials”.[23] He went on to concede that false information might have been submitted, for personal or business reasons. One example is the case of Abdul Roh Ning Yaha, who was arrested on February 7 at his house in Yarang district, Pattani province, and accused of possessing 300 metamphetamine pills, which the police claimed he had stored in the birdcage in front of his house. Abdul’s neighbors and his village leaders believe that he was set up, knowing Abdul to be a strict Muslim and a respected community leader who teaches village children the Quran in his spare time. Abdul had had local political conflicts and villagers believe that his opponents framed him.

Some persons whose names found their way on to blacklists fought to get them off and clear their reputations. For instance, Wichai Samtung, an ethnic Lisu villager of Ban Huay Kiang Sang village, Phrao district, Chiang Mai province, was allegedly framed by police together with three other villagers during a search of their houses on April 26, when they produced one amphetamine pill as ‘evidence’ against him. Wichai, who has worked for three years as an anti-drug committee member, sought help from the Law Society of Thailand with the other villagers. Meanwhile, the police tried to talk Wichai out of taking the case to court, which they said would be “time consuming”. According to Wichai,

At first there was one pill in the search. However, the number mysteriously increased to three when police pressed the charge in court as I refused to surrender. They (the police) said the penalty for possessing just one pill was minor, possibly just a few thousand Baht fine and it would be in my best interest to confess and end the case quickly. But I could not follow that advice since I am innocent. I will fight on even if it was one pill or just half a pill.

In another case, lawyer Somchai Limsgoon, president of the Law Society of Samut Songkram Province, was blacklisted for having earlier defended accused drug dealers in court. Somchai fought the listing and the provincial commanding officer later agreed with him that his name should not have been on the list, but in the meantime his reputation was seriously damaged and personal security compromised.

Another critique of the government’s lists was made by Charan Pakdithanakul, secretary to the Supreme Court president, who said that, “People may take one look at the death toll and hail the government, but if you scrutinize the names of those killed, there’s not a single big-time dealer.”[24] Similarly, a New York Times article noted that the dozens of organized crime groups running the drug trade protected or led by powerful civilian and military figures were unaffected by the campaign.[25] The Interior Ministry finally ordered the Narcotics Control Board to check the lists on February 26.[26] A sub-committee to monitor operations taken under the anti-narcotics law was also established, with guidelines to ensure that proper legal procedure be followed with regards to incidents reported in relation to the ‘war on drugs’. The panel asked the police to send all related data for it to examine within the month, and report on the causes of death and their investigations every 15 days.[27] However, the sub-committee was not taken seriously, and it was not until the end of April that police began submitting reports, by which time they would have been able to conceal or doctor any problematic evidence against them.

The Thai government not only repressed and ignored most of the criticism from its own public but also feigned indifference to international criticism. Dr Pradit Chareonthaitawee, a member of Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission received political and physical threats after expressing concern about the high number of killings.[28] Dr Pradit made a presentation at a United Nations (UN) conference in February on the human rights situation in Thailand, including extrajudicial killings and the rising death toll of the anti-drug campaign.[29] Dr Pradit maintained that the National Human Rights Commission Act authorizes its commissioners to inform the world about on-going human rights violations in Thailand.[30] Prime Minister Thakshin, however, labeled his behaviour as “sickening” and questioned his authority to communicate with the UN.[31] A spokesman from the ruling Thai Rak Thai party threatened Dr Pradit with impeachment due to his actions being “biased and against national interests”.[32] Dr Pradit also received death threats on March 5 and 6 from an anonymous caller who told him to “stop speaking to the United Nations or die”.

Meanwhile, the Thai government continued to insist that the means justified the ends. A foreign ministry spokesperson told reporters that, “We want the international community to see our side of the story. It’s necessary for the government to take decisive action to deal with the drug problem.“[33] Prime Minister Thaksin was less diplomatic, commenting facetiously that “the United Nations is not my father”. However, the Interior Ministry banned the release of statistics on drug-related deaths on February 28, in contrast to its earlier public tallies and apparently in part due to adverse international reaction.[34] After that date, reports of killings in newspapers also dwindled.

By the end of March, the government agreed to cut its drugs arrest target to 75%, after officially stating that some people on the lists did not exist.[35] The government also received reports on state officials suspected of drug involvement. The Local Administration Department fired or suspended 40 village chiefs, while a disciplinary investigation was being conducted against 141 chiefs. The Royal Thai Police Office blacklisted 477 officers, 135 of whom were fired, while 39 faced criminal prosecution. On April 1 the Prime Minister announced that all government officials suspected of involvement in the trade would be transferred to inactive posts.[36]

At a meeting on April 8, the government increased financial incentives to encourage arrests of drug traffickers by officials – informants would get 15 per cent of the value of seized assets, arresting officials 25 per cent, and if there were no informant, the official would get 40 per cent.[37] The government also decided that drug free villages would be entitled to additional state aid. Similarly, outstanding officials would be awarded medals, including the National Power medal for bravery. Along with such incentives, the government continued to discipline officials failing to meet its rigid targets. On April 25 the governors of three provinces were threatened with the sack if they did not meet the final arrest quota before the end of the war on April 30.[38]

At the start of May, Prime Minister Thaksin declared ‘victory’ in the war on drugs, although since that date the campaign has continued more surreptitiously, after a decision was made to extend elements of the policy over the coming year.[39] To achieve his ‘victory’, the Prime Minister instigated a shoot-to-kill policy that left nearly 2000 people dead in the three months. The persons killed were subject neither to judicial process nor effective investigation by the authorities, whether before or after death. Meanwhile, the major players in the drug trade were left untouched.

The campaign has brought about a disturbing new level of authoritarian administration in Thailand. Senior government officials have done little but acquiesce with their Prime Minister’s orders, disregarding the fundamental principles of law, and this trend has since continued, under the Prime Minister’s newest ‘war’, against nebulous “dark influences”. Prior to this war on drugs, Thailand was seen as having made considerable progress in protection of human rights by comparison to neighbouring states. Regrettably, this can no longer be said to be the case.

End Notes

1 The Nation, 2 February 2003.[Back to content]
2 The Nation, 2 February 2003. At time of writing, there are roughly 40 Thai Baht to US. [Back to content]
3 ‘Named and shamed’, Bangkok Post, 6 April 2003.[Back to content]
4 Which has also been referred to by the media as the National Committee on the War on Drugs, and National Centre to Defeat Drugs. [Back to content]
5 ‘Named and shamed’.[Back to content]
6 ‘Named and shamed’.[Back to content]
7 Brad Adams, ‘Drug ‘war’ kills democracy too: Thailand’s crackdown’, International Herald Tribune, 24 April 2003. [Back to content]
8 The Nation, 1 March 2003.[Back to content]
9 The Nation, 9 March 2003.[Back to content]
10 The Nation, 9 March 2003.[Back to content]
11 The Nation, 13 February 2003.[Back to content]
12 Amnesty International Press Release, 20 February 2003.[Back to content]
13 Robert Horn, ‘The killing season’, Time Asia, 10 March 2003. [Back to content]
14 ‘Innocent victims suffer in silence’, Bangkok Post, 17 February 2003. [Back to content]
15 ‘Families live in terror as suspects die’, Bangkok Post, 1 March 2003. [Back to content]
16 ‘Police arrest informants to meet target’, Bangkok Post, 10 March 2003.[Back to content]
17 The Nation, 15 February 2003.[Back to content]
18 Editorial, Vancouver Sun, 8 April 2003.[Back to content]
19 Seth Mydans, ‘A wave of drug killings is linked to Thai police’, New York Times, 8 April 2003.[Back to content]
20 The Nation, 27 February 2003.[Back to content]
21 ‘Campaign has torn some families apart’, Bangkok Post, 19 May 2003. [Back to content]
22 The Nation, 26 February 2003.[Back to content]
23 ‘Named and shamed’.[Back to content]
24 The Nation, 26 February 2003.[Back to content]
25 Mydans, ‘A wave of drug killings’.[Back to content]
26 The Nation, 27 February 2003. [Back to content]
27 ‘Lift the clouds of darkness and fear’, Bangkok Post, 16 March 2003. [Back to content]
28 Forum Asia statement, 7 March 2003.[Back to content]
29 ‘Pradit subject of impeachment talk’, The Nation, 6 March 2003. [Back to content]
30 Wassana Nanuam, ‘Pradit accused of protecting dealers’, Bangkok Post, 11 March 2003. [Back to content]
31 Yuwadee Tunyasiri, ‘Thaksin blasts comments from Pradit as sickening’, Bangkok Post, 9 March 2003. [Back to content]
32 ‘Pradit subject of impeachment talk’, The Nation, 6 March 2003.[Back to content]
33 Editorial, Vancouver Sun, 8 April 2003. [Back to content]
34 Forum Asia statement.[Back to content]
35 ‘Target cut as some suspects don’t exist.’ Bangkok Post, 29 March 2003. [Back to content]
36 The Nation, 2 April 2003.[Back to content]
37 The Nation, 9 April 2003.[Back to content]
38 ‘Three governors face chop for failing to achieve targets’, Bangkok Post, 26 April 2003.[Back to content]
39 The Nation, 24 April 2003. [Back to content]