Thailand's Deadly Crackdown

BANGKOK, Thailand -- After more than 2,200 people were mysteriously shot dead, security forces were ordered to polish their weapons with new enthusiasm so Thailand's secretive war on drugs can continue through the year, beyond a three-month deadline set for April 30.

"We must be armed. Any rusty guns must be cleaned up," Interior Minister Wan Muhamad Matha told his colleagues. "By the end of April, we must start declaring drug-free provinces," Mr. Wan said. Thanks to the government's assaults, prices sky-rocketed for methamphetamines -- the main target of the crackdown -- prompting some desperate users to switch to glue, paint thinner and other dangerous ways of mutating their perceptions. Balloon vendors were warned against allowing kids to buy the nitrous oxide gas used to fill balloons at night fairs and parties.

"It is easy to identify [nitrous oxide] addicts. Despite their age, they usually carry a balloon," said the Food and Drug Administration's deputy general-secretary, Wiroj Sumyai. "Solvents do more harm than methamphetamines because abuse can have irreversible effects on the brain," warned Office of Narcotics Control Board official Toonsak Yunchanont.

"The situation is very good now, though we must maintain a high level of awareness in the crackdown on drugs," Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said, praising the police and military. On Feb. 1, the government unleashed a nationwide assault to end illegal drug production, smuggling and consumption in this Southeast Asian nation within three months.

"The first month will see the crackdown on street pushers. In the second month, police will go after dealers. And the last month of campaign will focus on drug kingpins," Interior Minister Wan had announced. Flushed with the bloody campaign's success, the prime minister has now tightened the noose and vowed to extend its reach.

"The prime minister said that the three-month national crackdown on drugs from February to April 2003 was considered the initial stage, and did not mean that the war on drugs would end by then," the prime minister's office said, announcing a new December deadline. "Nationwide anti-drug operations would continue" and "would be intensified, so that the government would declare a victory in the drug war on Dec. 2," the prime minister's office said. "The government's victory of freeing Thailand from illicit drugs" would be hailed three days later to honor the birth of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was born on Dec. 5, 1927. Not everyone is cheering.

"Despite hundreds of murders and thousands of arrests, the 'drug culture' appears to have survived," cautioned a Bangkok Post editorial. "As far as is known, every major drug trafficker except one remains free, and therefore in business," the respected paper added. The government pointed to a four-fold price rise for methamphetamines as proof of the crackdown's success. Blackmarketeers and drug syndicates, however, were believed to be hoarding stockpiles of pills until the crackdown tapers off, and could profit from the higher prices.

Human rights officials described the war on drugs as a bloodbath after the death toll quickly rose, killing 2,275 people under mysterious circumstances since Feb. 1, according to the National Police Commission's spokesperson, Major-General Pongsaphat Pongcharoen. But critics blamed trigger-happy police for "extrajudicial executions" of innocent civilians, small-time addicts and dealers, informants and rivals who may have been the middle of alleged gang wars among cops and criminals bumping off competitors.

"I suspect the silencings were carried out to prevent the dead from implicating police," said Attorney-General Wichian Wiriyaprasit. "The U.S. provides training to Thai counter-narcotics officers and also is looking to the Thai police for help in the global war on terrorism. So any suggestion that Thai police could be involved in extrajudicial killings would reflect badly on Washington and possibly affect bilateral aid," reported the U.S.-owned Far Eastern Economic Review magazine.

"In effect, the government appears to condone what looks like the most widespread and sustained mass killing by law enforcement officials in recent history," said an open letter to the prime minister, signed by the deans of Thailand's three most prestigious law schools. Police and government officials strenuously denied all such accusations. Police blamed nearly all the deaths on shoot-outs among criminals. Human rights officials, however, complain evidence disappeared when police quickly arranged Buddhist cremations for the dead, without autopsies.

The prime minister meanwhile insisted the government and police were performing within the law "to realize the ultimate goal of permanent eradication of drugs." The prime minister also said assassination plots against him by "international mafia bosses" proved he was putting his life on the line to purge Thailand of drugs. "Wouldn't I look good dying for the good of the country?" Mr. Thaksin said in a radio speech.

"Why should I be afraid? You only die once." Police said they arrested at least 51,531 people throughout the country, and seized more than 23 million U.S. dollars worth of assets. They also seized more than 14 million methamphetamine pills since Feb. 1, along with opium, heroin, marijuana, ecstasy, ketamine and other drugs. Delighted, the government predicted it would net 10 times the amount of assets and drugs by Dec. 2. "Some three million people are methamphetamine-abusers, five percent of the population," said Defense Minister Thamarak Isarankula. "If we allow the situation to continue, we may end up a nation of crazy people."

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