Thailand's Murderous Drug War


Just a few weeks before President George Bush launched the attack on Iraq, Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared his own war, against the country's stubborn methamphetamine trade.

Over the following three months, while most of the world's attention was on the Middle East, Thai military and police-controlled hit squads shot to death nearly 2,300 people, in their homes, in the middle of the street, and sometimes just after taking them into custody. At the peak, these extrajudicial executions topped 40 a day.

While officially denying the government was running a murder campaign, Thaksin, a former police officer, cheered the deaths as a victory over the narcotics trade. Yet, if involved in drugs at all, the victims were nearly all petty users and small dealers. The dead include several children and a number of apparently misidentified people. In some cases, the police had only scant evidence -- such as the accusation of a business rival -- upon which they made their decision to kill.

Meanwhile, actual kingpins of the drug trade, many with connections in police, military and political circles, are getting the soft touch, if pursued at all.

The campaign is striking in that it represents the reversal of two decades of steady progress toward rule of law and human rights in Thailand. Equally stunning is that it has elicited no comment from Washington. In a demonstration of the Bush administration's essential disinterest in human rights and democratic development, the United States so far has found no need to criticize or censure Thaksin and his government.

As President Bush welcomes Thaksin to Washington this week to honor his support for the U.S. effort against Iraq, Bush could express his outrage at the murderous campaign -- but he likely will not.

Thailand is one of the unidentified states in the U.S. "coalition of the willing." Officially neutral in the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Bangkok has been hugely cooperative since 9/11 in everything from U.S. military logistics to CIA searches for al Qaeda agents.

Such cooperation seems to have lent Thaksin the confidence to launch this campaign of illegal executions. Thailand has suffered for several years a flood of methamphetamines -- "ya ba", or "crazy drug" -- from labs in the Golden Triangle, the border areas of Thailand, Burma and Laos where heroin is produced. The drugs have resulted in substantial social problems, but have by no means been as unmanageable or turbulent as the 1980s crack wave in the United States.

There is no doubt who is doing the killing, and Thaksin and his top officials are openly proud of the body count. Police Lt. Gen. Chidchai Vanasatidya, secretary-general of the government's Narcotics Control Board, told reporters that the results were "better than our expectations," and that few people had complained about it.

In fact, Thai newspapers and human rights activists, defying government pressure to cheer the campaign, have spoken out against it. International human rights groups such as Amnesty International have also condemned the killings.

But the State Department and White House have remained silent. Since the Carter administration, human rights has been a keystone of U.S. foreign policy, a tool sometimes wielded with significant effect.

The policy has helped advance democratic processes and rule of law in a number of countries, including Thailand. It is a policy that recognized that, over time, Washington's uncritical partnerships with cooperative but brutal and undemocratic leaders have a tendency to bring "blowback" -- negative repercussions -- to the United States.

To be sure, the Bush government has responded to some human rights abuses. When Cuba arrested, tried and imprisoned a large group of dissidents a few months ago, the State Department reacted with lightning speed and vehement language, threatening tough sanctions and eventually expelling 14 Cuban diplomats from the United States.

And when Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested by the ruling junta last week, it drew an equally quick and sharp condemnation. But both countries' relations with the United States are already tenuous. Condemning them is little more than an ongoing exercise for Washington.

Thailand, on the other hand, is a close ally. Yet in summarily executing nearly 2,300 people, Bangkok hasn't even put up a pretense of maintaining rule of law.

Instead of criticizing this suspension of law and stifling of critics, Washington in May sent some 7,000 U.S. troops to join Thai forces in annual exercises. The message this sends is as clear as it was in the Cold War: As long as you are on Washington's side, anything goes.

Paul Handley, a freelance writer in the San Francisco Bay Area, reported from Bangkok for 12 years, until 2001.

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