Thailand’s new government has unveiled plans for an ambitious crackdown on drugs, with an emphasis on rehabilitation and compassion.
Officially announced on 3 October, the policy includes placing some 400,000 drug addicts in rehabilitation programs within the year, as well as arresting some 10,000 known dealers.
But while the planned focus on rehabilitation is seen as a step forward in a country where nearly 3,000 people were killed during the 2003 controversial war on drugs, human rights groups and activists remain skeptical.
“An ambitious and worrying target has been set to ‘rehabilitate’ 400,000 drug users within one year,” says Human Rights Watch (HRW) spokesman Sunnai Pasuk.
“Concerns remain about the potential arbitrary arrests and detention of drug users in compulsory drug ‘rehabilitation’ centers, mostly run by the military and Interior Ministry, where ‘treatment’ is based on military-style physical exercise, with little medical assistance for drug withdrawal symptoms,” he added.
HRW is not alone in its concern.
“We need to ensure that in working with the government that full respect for human rights is maintained and that the treatment provided to drug users is voluntary, evidence-based and rights-based,” Gary Lewis, regional representative for East Asia and the Pacific in the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said.
In 2010, more than 80 percent of all persons who received drug treatment in specialized treatment facilities and correctional institutions reported methamphetamine pills as the primary drug of use.
Thailand is one of the few countries in the region that provides specialized treatment for amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) usage, according to the UNODC’s 2011 Global ATS Assessment.
That is due, in large part, to the alarming increase in drug seizures in the region in recent years. UNODC reports that the number of methamphetamine pills seized in South-East Asia leaped from 32 million in 2008 to 133 million in 2010, with Thailand remaining one of the largest markets.
“In the region the international community and the countries of the region have taken their eye off the ball in drug control,” said Lewis.
“For various reasons we are now in a situation where we are facing a significant increase in seizures as well as opium production, largely in east and south Shan state in Myanmar,” Lewis added.
Due to increased illicit manufacture in neighboring Myanmar, seizures of methamphetamine in both pill and crystalline forms in Thailand have increased each year since 2007.
During that period, methamphetamine pill seizures rose from 14 million in 2007 to 22 million in 2008, 27 million in 2009 and nearly 50 million in 2010, according to UNODC.
Earlier this month, just one day after the launch of the crackdown, Thai Navy forces seized nearly a million amphetamine pills from a Chinese vessel hauling fruit and vegetables down the Mekong River.
In the hills of northern Thailand, where most of the drugs are smuggled across the porous border, Captain Sompong Taweeklamkun has seen first-hand the damage caused by the illicit trade.
The commander is confident the new crackdown will not be a repeat of the 2003 controversy. “We have learned from the past, use better tactics to get inside the community by using volunteers to go to every village on the drug list,” the veteran member of the Thai military’s anti-drug Pha Muang task force, which oversees enforcement in the north, told IRIN.
Indeed, the new policy has key elements that sound good – at least on paper – but there are still concerns about implementation.
And there is little comfort for the thousands of victims’ families from the crackdown seven years ago – who still wait for full investigations to take place. “To date, there is no sign that the government will continue the ‘war on drugs’ investigations,” says HRW’s Pasuk.