Published on February 25, 2008
Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and Interior Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung are not famous for their blunt manner of speech for nothing. The crudity of their tone and aggressive demeanour are probably two personal traits that endear them to many simple folks in this country. But the interior minister's announcement, backed by Samak, that the government would launch a war on drugs similar to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's 2003 campaign is a cause for worry. After all, more than 2,500 suspected drug traffickers were killed in just three months during Thaksin's campaign. Strong suspicions were raised about gross human-rights violations, and the government was roundly condemned by civil-rights advocates and the international community.
Thaksin claimed that most of the deaths were the result of drug-pushers killing one another in order to avoid being implicated in the illicit drug trade, and that only in a small number of cases were suspects killed by police while resisting arrest.
But the former prime minister was believed to have given tacit approval for widespread extrajudicial killings by police when he instructed law-enforcement officials to "eliminate drugs from society" through the use of "extreme measures".
What was disturbing was that the majority of the Thai public approved of Thaksin's drug war and his popularity ratings soared.
Now Chalerm is sending out a similar message, saying that he would not mind if a few thousand drug suspects were eliminated by their comrades in crime. Asked to comment on the interior minister's planned crackdown on drugs, Samak upped the ante by saying he couldn't care less if 5,000 drug pushers were killed by their own kind.
The prime minister said that no one should be sorry to see suspected drug traffickers die in large numbers. Of course, neither Chalerm nor Samak said they would order police to shoot to kill drug suspects on sight.
But such crass statements from government leaders who claim to wield the public mandate won through a democratic election go against the very principle of the supremacy of the rule of law. That principle states that all suspected criminals must be presumed innocent until proven otherwise and that every one of them has a right to the due process of the law.
Even if it were true that the cancerous spread of illicit drugs, particularly methamphetamines, in Thailand has reached epidemic proportions, and that attempts at combating the drug scourge have not produced results that are anywhere near satisfactory, there can be no justification for law-enforcement officials taking the law into their own hands and killing off suspected drug dealers.
It is too simplistic for the government to be fixated on a get-tough policy against drug traffickers without also implementing preventive measures through innovative public education campaigns aimed at reducing the demand for drugs, especially amphetamines, which have become the lifestyle drug of choice for many young people.
Known drug abusers should be encouraged to undergo rehabilitation programmes to help them kick the habit.
A whole gamut of anti-drug measures should be brought to bear against those involved in the illicit trade: strict law enforcement should be complemented by asset forfeiture against big- and small-time drug dealers.
It is sad to see our top political leaders stoop so low and show such utter disrespect for the rule of law and human rights in this country just a short time after a functioning democracy has been restored.
Equal protection and due process are among the most important hallmarks of the rule of law, which makes democratic rule possible. Let's not forget that Thaksin's dirty war on drug traffickers, which tainted the country's human-rights record and compromised the conscience of the nation, also marked the beginning of the end of democracy, which ended up losing its true meaning.
No democracy can survive abuses such as state-sponsored terror against its citizens.