Drug Wars

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Beginning February 1, drug dealers and officials involved in narcotics face possible execution in an effort to make Thailand drug-free within three months, the government has declared.

"Tell them [dealers] to stop selling drugs and leave the communities for good or they will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace," Interior Minister Wan Nor Matha told citizens.

"In our war on drugs, the district chiefs are the knights, and provincial governors are the commanders. If the knights see the enemies but do not shoot them, they can be beheaded by their commanders," the interior minister added.

"A normal person lives for 80 years, but a bad person should not live that long," a regional police commander, Pichai Sunthornsajjabun, warned.

Highly addictive methamphetamines are Thailand's number one scourge, eclipsing heroin which previously wracked society.

Thailand is "a consuming and a major transit country" for methamphetamines and heroin, according to the U.S. State Department.

Guerrillas in Burma, a country also known as Myanmar, are blamed for producing most of the "speed" and "smack" smuggled into Thailand for local consumption and transshipment abroad.

Burma's military regime complains that the chemicals to make meth -- such as the stimulant ephedrine -- are imported into Burma via Thailand, China and other countries, fueling production.

Several years ago, the Thai government dubbed methamphetamines, "ya ba," or crazy drug, to emphasize its potential to cause mental derangement.

Earlier called "ya ma," or horse drug, it enables construction workers, truck drivers and others to labor for long hours.

The lack of dreaming sleep, however, can quickly cause hallucinations, depression, paranoia and violence.

During the past decade, speed has spread to middle- and upper-class Thai youths. Teachers, parents and Buddhist priests lament students who prostitute themselves or become campus-based dealers for quick cash.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who enjoys strong U.S. support, demanded the entire country be rid of methamphetamines and other illegal drugs by April 30.

Mr. Thaksin's war on drugs begins on Saturday (Feb. 1) when authorities must draw up lists exposing alleged drug dealers and users in their districts.

Corruption among law enforcement officers is one of the biggest reasons methamphetamines and other illegal drugs continue to be sold, the prime minister reportedly told his cabinet.

Human rights activists cautioned against extrajudicial executions after officials stressed the need to kill dealers and others involved in narcotics.

"We do not want them dead," Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh assured human rights groups. "Everything we do is legal," Mr. Chavalit added.

"We have no extrajudicial killing policy, but we will kill those who resist arrest," National Police Chief Sant Sarutanont clarified.

"Major drug dealers usually fight because they are afraid of arrest and harsh punishment," Mr. Sant said.

Under Thai law, drug trafficking can result in a death sentence and some people have been executed. Most punishment, however, involves lengthy confinement in squalid prisons.

Thailand's "prison population has more than doubled in just five years, and over 65 percent of inmates are imprisoned for narcotics-related offenses," the U.S. State Department said.

Thailand's goal of making the country drug-free within three months met with skepticism by some Thais.

"This is by no means an unattainable goal -- if one were to legalize the darn stuff," Bangkok Post columnist Thirasant Mann wrote in a scathing criticism.

"Well-known people, particularly politicians, will begin to receive...parcels of pills from people with no return address. Naturally, they would conclude these were sent by their enemies from the other political camp.

"Thus the stage is set for an endless round of accusations on TV, radio, at seminars, in parliament, etc.," Mr. Mann wrote.

The latest crackdown coincides with an announcement by Bau Yuxiang -- a guerrilla leader of the Burma-based minority ethnic Wa tribe -- who said, "I have promised to make the Wa areas drug-free by 2005 and I will."

Thailand and the United States insist his 20,000 heavily armed guerrillas, known as the United Wa State Army, dominate most of the methamphetamine and heroin production in northern Burma.

The Wa -- former headhunters who never submitted to outside control -- reportedly tax heroin and other drugs to finance their domination over mountainous chunks of northern Burma.

Thailand and Burma frequently exchange deadly gunfire along their rugged jungle border while containing rival, Burma-based guerrillas groups.

The two nations have also tried to negotiate a peaceful solution to the drug problem and instability along the frontier.

"When our neighbors are peaceful, narcotics problems are small," Prime Minister Thaksin said on January 27, describing the purpose of his upcoming February visit to Burma for talks.

"Apparently little illicit drugs come from Cambodia and Laos, but a lot comes from Burma. Peace will lead to the disappearance of drugs," Mr. Thaksin said.

Burma produced about 800 million methamphetamine tablets in 2001 and a similar amount last year, officials said.

Burma's drugs flow across all its borders -- into Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand.

In the U.S., most speed laboratories are in California and Mexico, but much of the heroin reaching North America comes from Burma.

Some wealthy heroin syndicates move methamphetamines to the U.S. and Europe as well, officials said.

Smugglers also ship south through Burma's ports and across the Andaman Sea to Thailand's lengthy southwest coast.

In Thailand, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency [DEA] works closely with the government, police and military.

"Our DEA agents work side by side with their Thai counterparts, and U.S. Special Forces train with Thai soldiers in Thailand in counterinsurgency and border security techniques," James A. Kelly, assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told the Asia Foundation in March 2002.

Bangkok and Washington have tried to improve Thailand's investigative methods, including witness protection, co-conspirator testimony and electronic evidence.

The U.S. State Department's latest International Narcotics Control Strategy Report praised Bangkok's "close cooperation" with Washington.

An "epidemic-scale abuse of amphetamine-type stimulants [ATS], particularly among school-aged youth, remained Thailand's most imperative illegal drug problem," the report said.

"Thai authorities estimate that some three million people use some illicit drug, of whom about two-and-a-half million use ATS," it said.

America trained Thailand's Task Force 399 -- a joint army and border police unit -- to thwart smuggling along the northwest border with Burma.

"It is supported by an interagency intelligence fusion center established at Chiang Mai [city] with U.S. government assistance and support," the U.S. State Department said.

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