Critiquing Thaksin, III: Human Rights and the “War on Drugs”

We now turn to the central issue that has caused the most discomfort about Thaksin Shinawatra’s entry into English football: the question of his regime’s human rights record.

Most attention has focused on the notorious “war on drugs” of 2003, and we will devote most of this post to that issue. It’s important to recognize that the war on drugs is not the only part of Thaksin’s regime that has drawn criticism. For instance, Thaksin has been criticized for changing Thai policy with respect to refugees from the military regime in Burma, both on humanitarian grounds and as an implicit show of support for that government. His willingness to do business with the Burmese government was criticized on similar grounds.

Likewise, the international human rights clearinghouse Freedom House downgraded Thailand from its status as a “free” nation to “fairly free” status in 2005, citing the war on drugs but also intimidation of journalists and the deaths of roughly a dozen human rights and environmental activists in 2001 and 2002.

But all that pales next to the charge that Thaksin’s regime is in some way responsible for hundreds if not thousands of extra-judicial killings that took place in implementing his war on drugs. Since the repeated refrain of Thaksin and his lawyers, as well as in recent days spokespersons for Manchester City, has been that human rights charges against Thaksin are “unsubstantiated,” we will begin by noting three facts, all of which are a more or less incontrovertible part of the public record.

1. 2500-2700 Thais in 2003 died in extra-judicial killings attributed to the drug war by the government. Those are Thaksin’s governments own figures, not some estimate or guess of a human rights group. To my knowledge, no informed person has seriously disputed that estimate.

2. In Jaunary 2003, Thaksin gave a policy speech, the text of which has been published in multiple places, announcing the war on drugs that made it very clear that police would have very wide latitude and that he in fact expected some drug dealers to die in the crackdown.

3.Within a few weeks of the start of the crackdown, there were international media reports in outlets such as the Far Eastern Economic Review describing rampant violence associated with the crackdown and raising questions for Thaksin. Thaksin consistently rejected this criticism (at one point mocking the UN), though belatedly some investigations into the killings were set up, none of which accomplished very much.

It seems hard to believe there is no connection between facts 2 and 3 and fact 1. The nature of that connection is up for debate however. On the one hand, some have argued that this was simply a case of Thaksin’s “management by objective” gone awry, with local authorities bearing most of the responsibility for any police excess. On the other hand, others have suggested that Thaksin was quite happy to have some casualties in his drug war, as proof that the crackdown was making progress and that his government was taking decisive action to confront the (very real) plague of drugs in Thailand.

Human right groups have contributed to the debate by documenting numerous instances in which persons were killed during the drug war. From those various documents, a disturbing picture emerges quite at odds with the common image that comes to mind for most people when they hear the term “war on drugs.”

Some City fans, for instance, seem to think that what the Thai police are accused of doing is simply using excessive force in the process of arresting some known drug dealers who were known to be guilty anyway. That’s the mental image I had in my mind before looking a little deeper.

The actual charges are far more disturbing. Human Rights Watch, the Asian Legal Resources Centre, Amnesty International, and mainstream journalists for The New York Times, the Far East Economic Review, and other well-established outlets instead describe an outpouring of violence that targeted low-level dealers, some who merely used drugs, and some who were likely totally innocent. (See this essay from the Asian Legal Resource Centre for a detailed and informative chronology.) In preparation for the war on drugs, local police councils drew up lists of names of persons suspected to be involved with drugs.

Local police were then instructed to arrest the names on the list, and were given monetary incentives to seize drugs. Moreover, the specific incentives made it, according to numerous reports, more profitable for police to kill a suspect than simply have them arrested.

Hence harrowing stories like the one told in Sunday’s Mirror of a female shopkeeper summarily shot in front of her own daughter.

All told, over 2500 persons lost their life in the violence. Some, perhaps many, may have, as the government claimed, been shot by drug dealers. Others, it seems, died at the hands of Thai police. Pradit Charoenthaitawee of the Thai Human Rights Commission was quoted in the Sunday Mirror saying, “I will bring the charges myself privately if need be. We have strong evidence in 400 or so cases. Many of these injudicial killings were carried out in daylight in front of witnesses and many had nothing to do with drugs.”

How is Thaksin implicated in this violence? Thaksin’s lawyer has been quoted as saying “He has never instructed any police officer to kill a drug dealer.” This, as far as I know, is true so far as it goes.

But the human rights groups aren’t saying Thaksin pulled the trigger or gave direct orders. Instead they make four principal points:

1. Thaksin used rhetoric seeming to promise violence in announcing the war on drugs policy, in a January 2003 speech: “[The province of] Chiang Rai is another example of a province which was serious about suppression and rehabilitation . . .Sometimes people were shot dead and had their assets seized as well. I think we have to be equally ruthless. The drug sellers have been ruthless with the Thai people, with our children, so if we are ruthless with them it’s not a big deal. I believe we are forced to be so. It’s not something we have to be cautious about.”

2. Thaksin’s policy of rewarding police who captured drugs gave local officials a monetary incentive to kill persons on the blacklist. The most thorough account of how this worked I have seen is again provided by the Asian Legal Resource Centre. To quote:

Article 18 of the Prime Minister’s Office Regulations on Bonuses and Rewards Relating to Narcotics BE 2537 (1994), which had been amended by the Prime Minister’s Office Regulations on Bonuses and Rewards Relating to Narcotics (No. 2) BE 2540 (1997)… shall be replaced by the following statements:

“Article 18: The bonus shall be given when officials proceed with a notified case leading to arrest according to the following rules and conditions:
(1) In a case where both the alleged offender is arrested and the exhibited narcotics are seized, if the value calculated based on the quantity of narcotics does not exceed 1000 Baht, each case shall be paid not exceeding 1000 Baht, after the Public Prosecutor has issued a prosecution order. If the case falls under Section 92 of the Narcotics Control Act BE 2522 (1979) and Section 17 of the Royal Ordinance of the Control on the Use of Volatile Substances BE 2533 (1990), the bonus shall not be paid.
(2) In a case where the alleged offender is arrested and the exhibited narcotics are seized, if the value calculated based on the quantity of narcotics exceeds 1000 Baht
(a) In a case where the Public Prosecutor issues a prosecution order, the bonus calculated based on the quantity of narcotics may be paid in half before the Public Prosecutor issues a prosecution order. The remaining amount is to be paid in full when the Public Prosecutor has issued a prosecution order.
(b) The bonus calculated based on the quantity of narcotics shall be paid only in half if the Public Prosecutor has issued a non-prosecution order, or ceased the proceedings.
(3) In a case where both the alleged offender is arrested and the exhibited narcotics are seized, but the alleged offender loses his life during the arrest or thereafter, if the value calculated based on the quantity of narcotics exceeds 1000 Baht, the bonus shall be paid according to the quantity of narcotics when the Public Prosecutor has ceased the proceedings.
(4) In a case where only the exhibited narcotics are seized after the Public Prosecutor has stayed the inquiry, issued a prosecution or non-prosecution order, if the value calculated based on the quantity of narcotics exceeds 1000 Baht, only half of the bonus shall be paid.”

In effect, the police were guaranteed a higher bonus if the alleged offender was killed than if they were captured and not prosecuted. The Asian Legal Resource Centre report continues:

Whatever the mechanics of the lists, the consequence of being on one was possible death. Although the manner of killings varied across the country, the most commonly described pattern was as follows:
1. A victim’s name would appear on a list. The list would be made public knowledge, by word of mouth, or other means.
2. The victim would receive a letter or some other notice instructing her to go to the police station.
3. At the police station, the victim would be coerced to sign something admitting guilt, or otherwise acknowledge guilt, with promises by the police that her name would be removed from the list.
4. The victim would be shot on the way home, or within a few days, usually by a group of men in civilian clothes, in daylight and in a public place or at her house, often in front of and without regard to witnesses.
5. Police would fail to investigate the killing properly, and would concentrate on establishing the victim’s guilt as a drug dealer.

3. Thaksin’s government let it be known to local authorities that failure to meet quotas for capturing dealers would bring severe consequences. Thus the Asia Legal Resource Centre:

In Chiang Rai, police even put their informers in jail after they found it difficult to meet government targets for arrests. 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.

4. Thaksin brushed off all criticism of the war on drugs tactics, even mocking the UN in the process. To quote another report:

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”. 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.” 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.” He later concluded, “[Murder] is not an unusual fate for wicked people.

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. 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. 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. Prime Minister Thakshin, however, labeled his behaviour as “sickening” and questioned his authority to communicate with the UN. A spokesman from the ruling Thai Rak Thai party threatened Dr Pradit with impeachment due to his actions being “biased and against national interests”. 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.” 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. After that date, reports of killings in newspapers also dwindled.

In short, while Thaksin did not specifically order the execution of any particular drug dealer, he is charged with setting public policies that had the predictable effect of encouraging the police to kill without respect to any concept of due process, harming innocent people in the process. It is in this sense that he and his regime can be called responsible for the extra-judicial killings that occurred under his watch.

Obviously, these are disturbing, emotionally distressing charges. It’s also why Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have taken such a negative view of Thaksin Shinawatra. City fans have an understandable tendency to want to water down these charges and make the whole thing seem more palatable (more on that in subsequent posts).

After all, few City fans know the story of Chakraphan Srisa-ard. Thus the Asia Legal Resource Centre:

Initially, 90 per cent of the Thai population was reportedly behind the government’s war on drugs, however this was before children began dying. 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.” 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. A highland couple was shot dead on February 24 on suspicion of selling drugs. 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.”

It’s disturbing that those events happened, as reported by media outlets in Thailand and elsewhere at the time. It’s even more disturbing that Thaksin’s regime appeared to be indifferent to the costs of the war on drugs, continually insisting that the ends justified the means.

At some point, hopefully, there will be a full-scale investigation into the war on drugs in Thailand by an independent, credible body, an investigation with the capacity to sort through the various stories and build credible cases against those responsible for carrying out unlawful killings, from top to bottom. As early as December 2003, Thailand’s king called for an account of the unexplained deaths; the military junta recently announced its own investigation. Only an investigation launched by a democratic government would carry the full credibility required.

But one of the most amazing, little remarked quotes of the last week is Thaksin’s lawyer’s admission that his client (it seems) expects at some point to face charges on the human rights issues that have been raised. To quote Noppadol Pottama: “As far as I am concerned, he has never instructed any public officer to execute a drug dealer. We will be able to prove his innocence after the general election when we are sure our client will get a fair trial.”

In short, the lawyer for the new owner of Manchester City says a trial on human rights charges in the not-too-distant future is to be expected. If that’s so, City supporters who think or wish they’ve heard the end of the human rights charges against Thaksin are in for a rude surprise.

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