- Early on, Thailand also did a bloody crackdown on drugs back in 2003
- Then Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra used the same battle cry President Duterte is using today
- Shinawatra was sworn into power because of his drug war candidacy
- Half of those killed in the drug war were innocents
- While initially it reduced drug consumption, drug use returned to alarming levels in the last years of Shinawatra's rule, ultimately a failure
History repeats itself. A new leader is sworn into power under a campaign to stamp out drugs. His message reverberates with the people and draws roaring applause. Yet this already happened before, in another country. Thailand experienced the same strategy to resolve drug problems under an emphatic leader who gained a 90% approval rating at the start of his term. Then Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's campaign, though successful at first in getting a reign on the situation, ultimately spiraled out of his control.
Thailand's drug war
Back in 2003, the Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej urged parliament to fight against the drug problem across Thailand. Prime minister Shinawatra and his interior Minister Wan Muhamad Nor Matha was blood-thirsty in the tirade, declaring: "In our war on drugs, the district chiefs are the knights, and provincial governors are the commanders. If the knights see the enemies, but do not shoot them, they can be beheaded by their commanders." In fact, their promise to the Thai public was more overbearing than President Duterte's. While Duterte swore to end crime and drugs in 6 months, his Thai counterpart promised only 3 months to solve the drug problem (though afterwards, he gave himself an 8-month extension). It was this machismo style of leadership that gave him the 90% approval rating in one poll.
Bloody in the middle, innocents killed
Even from the start, Thailand's bloody extrajudicial approach to the war on drugs started badly. The investigative committee formed by the military junta which ousted Shinawatra in 2006 found that 2,800 people were killed in the first three months of his campaign. That's around 30 killings per day.
The Economist reported that the committee found that "over half of those killed had no links to the drugs trade. The panel blamed the violence on a government ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy based on flawed blacklists." This puts into question the accuracy of the information governments procure when making a decision to go with a shoot-to-kill plan. One major flaw on "blacklists" on the Thai experience was putting innocent people in the list without solid evidence. Local Thai police were reported to have used such lists to settle old scores. "Most names are drawn from the results of community meetings, which offered an opportunity for officials with conflicts to enter the names of people unrelated to the drug trade. Relatives and friends of those accused are also lumped into the same category. And ethnic minorities were subjected to stereotyped beliefs that they were also involved in the drug trade." The Thai government gave incentives and a quota for local police to "enforce the anti-drug campaign. This further undermined the integrity of the blacklists. President Duterte is using a similar reward system, an even more antiquated an anarchic bounty system for officers who are able to kill a suspected drug dealer/user. While not the same as a quota, it may well be headed in the same direction because the end point is to incentivize police to kill. Whether that is founded on solid evidence seems like a secondary question.
GlobalSecurity.org said Thailand’s war on drugs was “relatively successful campaign in a long war, (but) not as a victorious end to the war itself.” Many drug lords were spared, only the smaller drug dealers at the bottom were killed. Recently, President Duterte has named 5 police generals who are notorious for protecting drug lords. Whether these people are actually tried and convicted remains to be seen.
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By March of 2005, while 74 percent of the Thais polled still supported Thaksin’s campaign, some 68 percent did not think it would be successful. To his credit, Shinawatra was successful in curtailing opium production. He successfully destroyed around 320 hectares of it before it could be harvested. But in the long term, drug use ultimately returned to alarming levels. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime data also shows an alarming growth in the number of meth labs in Thailand: from 2 between 2008 and 2010, to 193 between 2011 and 2012. President Duterte still has a long 6 years before ending his term. Let's hope that he will put out a long term plan soon so the Philippines doesn't waste 6 years of innocents being killed and police gaming the bounty system for its rewards.