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Editorial: Redressing evils of drug war at last

It is better late than never concerning the investigation into one of the Thaksin era's bloodiest legacies

Published on August 15, 2007

It seems a little late for the interim Surayud government to be setting up an independent investigative committee to look into alleged systematic human-rights violations carried out by members of the Royal Thai Police in connection with more than 2,500 deaths in the "war against drugs" initiated by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2003. The committee, chaired by former attorney-general Khanit na Nakhon, is tasked with finding facts and analysing how the anti-drug campaign was formulated and implemented in such a manner that it resulted in a grievous atrocity in which law-enforcement officials were encouraged with the tacit approval of the then-prime minister to go on a killing spree that left many suspected traffickers dead.

The majority of those killed during the drug war are believed to have been the victims of "extra-judicial killings" committed by police officers, while others may have been "silenced" by fellow drug traffickers. The most disturbing thing at that time was that while the bloody campaign attracted international condemnation for its gross human-rights violations, the majority of the Thai public applauded what Thaksin described as a "zero tolerance" policy against drug traffickers.

In the view of too many Thais back then, the desire to suppress the drug scourge, which was once identified as the number one threat to national security, more than justified the undermining of the rule of law, the trampling of human rights, and the disregard for the due process of law. There were few outcries among members of the Thai public over the drug war partly because most of the victims were known to have led criminal lives or because their families and loved ones lacked the wherewithal to sue the authorities over such crimes.

Thaksin knew that he could get away with all of this, and he was right. He knew he could be successful by manipulating the feelings of many frustrated and worried parents who were fed up with seeing young people addicted to methamphetamines and other drugs that had flooded the streets of Thai cities and towns.

Thaksin would have found it too time-consuming to try to solve the drug problem in a comprehensive manner, taking into consideration the complicated socio-economic environment that enabled the drug trade to thrive. Thaksin also neglected to deal with the supply side of the equation, although he rightly identified the main source of the drugs - namely the armies of drug warlords operating independently in the Burmese section of the Golden Triangle.

The former prime minister chose instead to offer a quick fix that also boosted his popularity among the gullible members of the public. And the majority of the Thai public bought into his strongman tactics and populism.

The perversion of logic at the time was such that the more the Thaksin administration flouted people's human rights, the higher his approval ratings rose.

Almost four years have elapsed since Thaksin concluded his bloody campaign and, almost one year after the former prime minister was overthrown in a military coup, the Surayud government has decided to investigate the extra-judicial killings. It will be extremely difficult for Khanit's committee to gather sufficient evidence to substantiate the alleged crimes committed by many police officers, let alone to bring to justice the mastermind of such a systematic, bloody campaign. But that doesn't mean the committee should not try its best to bring to justice any and all police officers against whom it can find enough evidence to secure a conviction for the crimes they committed.

Of course, the least the committee can do is find ways to redress the damage done by offering recommendations for the compensation of the families and loved ones of the victims, including the innocent people who were misidentified as suspected drug traffickers as well as the actual drug-trafficking suspects who were murdered by police instead of being given access to the due process of law.

The committee can bring a sense of closure to such state-sponsored terror committed against its own citizens. And members of the Thai public need to learn the right lesson from this ugly episode in Thai politics and their guilty part in it not only for their failure to condemn the bloody campaign while it was underway, but also for offering Thaksin encouragement through the blind adulation of his personality cult.

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