As Drug Trafficking Revives, Thais Back Another Harsh Crackdown

Article excerpt

By day, Bangkok's largest slum broils under a scorching sun. Schoolchildren in crisp uniforms scuttle past sidewalk food vendors. But at night, say local activists, the dockside lanes of Khlong Toey belong to peddlers of methamphetamine pills, known to Thais as ya ba, or crazy medicine.

Wanlop Hirikul, a community leader and radio broadcaster, has been here before. Until 2003, his district was overrun with dealers hawking meth pills. Then came a violent but popular antidrug campaign led by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that disrupted trafficking networks and forced tens of thousands of addicts into rehabilitation camps.

Today, the situation is reversing. "It's getting worse. The drugs are coming back to our community ... where there used to be one dealer on the street, now there are three," Mr. Wanlop says.

Thai authorities are facing a spike in meth sales in poor communities. Counternarcotics officials warn that political instability is emboldening illegal drug manufacturers in Burma (Myanmar) who smuggle millions of pills into Thailand and across Southeast Asia, including growing markets in Cambodia and Laos.

The apparent failure of the military junta, which ousted Thaksin in 2006, to curb drug trafficking has proved a political gift to opponents. Officials in the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party (PPP) won the largest number of seats in Dec. 23 parliamentary elections, the first since the coup, after vowing to revive the "war on drugs."

That pledge pleases community leaders who want a firmer hand, but alarms human rights groups who monitored the 2003 crackdown, when more than 2,500 people died in extrajudicial killings. Thaksin has repeatedly blamed the slayings on internecine gang violence.

PPP deputy leader Chalerm Yubamrung last month pledged to ramp up suppression and reduce demand through treatment. Asked about 2003, Mr. Chalerm, a former interior minister, said it was a "misunderstanding" that the authorities were responsible. "There won't be any victimization of innocent people. Those who were affected were not the real innocents," he told the Bangkok Post.

But a junta-appointed panel recently concluded that more than half of those slain had no links to the drug trade. The panel blamed a government "shoot-to-kill" policy that used flawed police blacklists of suspected traffickers. It recommended compensation to victims' families.

But the panel has no judicial powers and its findings have been overshadowed by the jockeying to form a new government. …