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The New York Times: A Wave of Drug Killings Is Linked to Thai Police

A Wave of Drug Killings is Linked to Thai Police

New York Times:
April 8, 2003
A Wave of Drug Killings Is Linked to Thai Police

An extraordinary campaign of government-approved killings is under way in Thailand -- a crackdown on drug dealers that has taken as many as 2,000 lives over the past two months, an average of 30 a day.

The death toll -- equal to that of the carnage in East Timor in 1999 -- has drawn outrage from local and foreign human rights groups. It seems particularly shocking in a country where democracy has replaced the coups and strongman rule of past decades.

From the start, the police have disavowed most of the killings, saying they are the work of drug dealers trying to silence informers. Few people here accept that explanation. A variety of other government statements and independent monitoring make it clear that the police are carrying out widespread summary executions.

In rural areas and city slums, residents say they now stay indoors at night for fear of what have become known as ''silent killings.'' The most dangerous thing, they say, is to answer a police summons to respond to an accusation of drug dealing.

''Most of them got killed on the way back from the police office,'' said Sunai Phasuk, a member of an independent human rights group, ForumAsia. ''People found their name on a blacklist, went to the police, then end up dead.'' The Interior Ministry says its lists include 41,914 people around the country who are ''targets for monitoring.''

According to the police, there are rarely any witnesses to the killings. Bodies are often removed without autopsies. Often, they are found with plastic bags of drugs placed neatly by their side. Few homicide arrests have been made.

The official death toll of 2,052, announced by a police spokesman last week, is believed to include a number of other killings carried out under cover of the narcotics crackdown.

When it began at the start of February, the crackdown, ordered by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, had broad public backing. Methamphetamines, trafficked from Myanmar over the old opium routes through the Golden Triangle, are ravaging all sectors of society, from laborers to bankers, young and old.

But the campaign has become less popular as it has taken more innocent lives, and it took the shooting death of a 9-year-old boy just over a month ago to jolt the public into outrage.

The campaign has also drawn criticism from the United Nations as well as from human rights groups. Initially, the prime minister said he would rid Thailand of illicit drugs within three months. Now he says it will take until the end of year.

''The scale of these killings is absolutely appalling,'' said Mike Jendrzejczyk, the Washington director for Asia for Human Rights Watch. ''Thailand's image as a place where the rule of law is respected is clearly under assault.''

He added: ''I think the United States should suspend all assistance to the Thai police until there can be a credible, independent investigation into the killings and the United States takes steps to ensure it is not directly or indirectly complicit in them.''

Mr. Thaksin has brushed aside the criticism, saying, ''The United Nations is not my father.'' He added sarcastically: ''Opponents can gather signatures to back their call for the government to let the drug dealers live happily. Why care about our children?''

Indeed the country's children are at risk in the drug epidemic. The government says 700 million methamphetamine pills are smuggled from Myanmar every year, most of them for use in Thailand. It says three million people use the drug -- which is known here as yaa baa, or ''crazy medicine'' -- including 300,000 people who are addicted, in a population of 63 million.

Officials say dozens of organized crime groups run the drug trade, protected by or run by powerful civilian and military figures. Critics note that the current campaign targeting low-level dealers and traffickers leaves those organizations intact.

Initial surveys by an independent polling concern showed that 90 percent of the public supported the crackdown, even though 40 percent said they were afraid of being falsely accused, and 30 percent said they were afraid of being killed.

Then, just over a month ago, three undercover policemen firing at a getaway car killed the 9-year-old boy, Chakraphan Srisa-ard, with two bullets in the back. The police had just arrested his father for trying to sell them 6,000 pills, and his mother was fleeing for her life with the boy in the back seat.

The killing drew the biggest headlines since the start of the crackdown, and the boy's funeral was widely publicized.

''The war on drugs is getting more violent every day,'' one of his uncles, Chlaermpol Kerdrungruang, told reporters. ''The police kept shooting and shooting at the car. They wanted them to die. Even a child was not spared.''

Among the critics was Jaran Pakdithanakul, secretary to the Supreme Court president. ''What the police said is not credible,'' he said, referring to their claim that someone else shot at the car. ''We must stop these bloodthirsty police officers.''

As public opinion began to turn, officials stopped issuing regular reports of the death toll, and the government appointed a commission to investigate complaints of summary killings. Last week, however, Deputy Attorney General Praphan Naiyakowit, who runs the investigation, said the police had failed to produce any of the reports he had requested.

The killings appear to have continued, though possibly at a somewhat lower rate.

A police spokesman, Pongsapat Pongchaeroen, gave the latest death toll last week, adding that the police had made 46,776 drug-related arrests, had seized 12.51 million methamphetamine pills and had confiscated $14.94 million in property belonging to suspected traffickers.

As with earlier reports, he insisted that most of the victims had been killed by fellow drug dealers. Just 46 had been killed by the police, he said, and all of those killings had been in self-defense. He said six police officers had been killed and 15 wounded.

Since the death of 9-year-old Chakraphan, there have been frequent reports in the Thai press of summary executions and their innocent victims.

There was the 16-month-old girl who was shot dead along with her mother, Raiwan Khwanthongyen. There was the pregnant woman, Daranee Tasanawadee, who was killed in front of her two young sons. There was the 8-year-old boy, Jirasak Unthong, who was the only witness to the killing of his parents as they headed home from a temple fair.

There was Suwit Baison, 23, a cameraman for a local television station, who fell to his knees in tears in front of Mr. Thaksin and begged for an investigation into the killing of his parents.

His stepfather had once been arrested for smoking marijuana, Mr. Suwit said. When the police offered to drop the charge if he would admit to using methamphetamines, he opted instead to pay the $100 fine for marijuana use.

Both parents were shot dead as they returned home from the police station on a motorbike. Mr. Suwit said 10 other people in his neighborhood had also been killed after surrendering to the police.

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