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Bloodbath Feared

Bloodbath Feared -

RIGHTS-THAILAND: Bloodbath Feared in Fresh Anti-Narcotics Drive
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Feb 27, 2008 (IPS) - Thai human rights activists are raising the alarm over a possible bloodbath in a second 'war on drugs,' that the new government plans to launch to suppress the trade in narcotics.

Public statements by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, that no quarter will be given in targeting drug networks, have added to these concerns. ''It is impossible to avoid killings when implementing drug suppression,'' Samak was reported to have said during a regular television programme, 'Samak's Talk,' broadcast every Sunday.

''When the crackdown is underway, killings will take place,'' the premier, who led his People Power Party (PPP) to victory at a late December election, added. ''I want people to understand that in order to fulfill the anti-drug objective, extra-judicial killings do occur, but police officers responsible for the acts will have to face legal consequences.''

According to 'The Nation', an English-language newspaper, the government has been cavalier about the number of people who may be killed during the campaign. Interior Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung said that ''he would not mind if a few thousand drug suspects were eliminated by their comrades in crime,'' it noted in a Monday editorial.

''Asked to comment on the interior minister's planned crackdown on drugs, Samak upped the ante by saying that he couldn't care less if 5,000 drug pushers were killed by their own kind,'' the daily added. ''The prime minister said that no one should be sorry to see suspected drug traffickers die in large numbers.''

Such language is creating a climate for the police and other officials to pursue a ''license to kill'' policy, said Boonthan Veerawongse, the head of Amnesty International's Thailand office, in an interview. ''Many innocents may fall as targets due to the extra-judicial killings.''

His human rights lobby is among a growing chorus of like-minded organisations and activists warning against an anti-narcotics drive that is unaccountable to the law. ''We have started telling the public that people dealing in drugs have to be arrested and go through the justice system,'' Bonnthan explained. ''They have to be brought into courts and tried; not executed outside.''

The alarm raised by human rights groups is not misplaced. In 2003, over 2,500 people were killed during a 'war on drug' unleashed by the administration of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted from power by the military in a September 2006 coup. Thaksin dismissed charges of extra-judicial killings during that drug eradication campaign. He used the same arguments the current government is using to explain the large number of deaths during such a campaign -- that the drug dealers are killing each other.

Yet, subsequent research by human rights monitors and a special committee appointed by the military regime in 2007 to investigate the 2003 anti-drug campaign suggested otherwise. Over 1,000 of the people who were killed that year had little connection with this South-east Asian nation's drug networks, the investigations revealed.

To date, no senior government or police officer linked to the murder of so many innocent civilians has been prosecuted. And civilians who lost relatives at the time, such as Lawan Rattanapreechchan, are losing hope about justice ever prevailing. ''It is frustrating. The DSI (Department of Special Investigation) is sending us from one office to another when we ask about the inquiry,'' 45-year-old Lawan told IPS.

She says that her 33-year-old sister and her sister's 44-year-old husband were among the innocents who were gunned down during the 2003 anti-drug campaign. They were shot to death late evening in May that year near a security checkpoint in Mae Sot, a town by the side of the Thai-Burma border.

In January this year, the special committee appointed by the military regime, which ruled Thailand for 16 months, announced that it had no evidence to punish the perpetrators of the 2003 'war on drugs'. It was an admission that shocked human rights groups, since there was available evidence of written instructions by senior government officials to use heavy-handed tactics during the anti-drug campaign under the Thaksin administration.

Notorious during that campaign was the initial order given by the central government to the heads of the country's 76 provinces to prepare ''black lists'' of suspected drug dealers. Thereafter, each province was order to slice that number with monthly targets, in some cases by as much as 25 percent. Some villagers in the north whose names appeared on the ''black lists'' quivered with fear. Others who were named on the lists were ordered to report to the local police station, only to be shot days later.

That drive against the narcotics trade grew out of public concern about the high number of people, some as young as 15 years, being hooked on methamphetamines. A U.N. study at the time estimated that anywhere from 500 million to 700 million speed pills produced in narcotics labs in neighbouring Burma were smuggled across the border into Thailand annually.

Public support for Thaksin's anti-drug campaign exposed the country's reluctance to be troubled by human rights violations. ''There was no public protest against the abuse at the time; the human rights voices were in the minority,'' said Sriprapha Petchraramesree, a lecturer in human rights at Mahidol University, based outside Bangkok. ''The whole society never questioned the problem.''

A similar climate of condoning violence during the 2008 'war on drugs' is likely to prevail, she explained during an interview. ''In many ways, Thai society is becoming more silent. This means accepting the government's view.''

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