Thailand Wages a Bloody War on Drugs

Times Staff Writer

Thanom Monta and his wife, Kwanla Puangchompu, learned they were on a government blacklist of suspected drug dealers when they received a letter ordering them to report to police.

On Feb. 26, they rode their motorbike to a police station in the central city of Phetchabun. They were allowed to leave at 3 p.m., but before they had driven two miles a car pulled alongside them and men inside opened fire. Both Thanom, 53, and Kwanla, 40, were killed.

With their deaths, the couple became part of Thailand's grisly success in its new war against drugs.

Officials report that at least 1,498 people have died since Feb. 1, when Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared an all-out campaign against drug trafficking. Authorities say there are only three ways to get off the lists of drug dealers: get arrested, turn informant or die.

Police acknowledge killing 31 suspected traffickers in self-defense but say the others were slain by drug lords seeking to silence potential informers.

"In this war, drug dealers must die," the prime minister said. "But we don't kill them. It's a matter of the bad guys killing the bad guys."

Interior Minister Wan Mohammed Noor Matha warned that drug dealers would "be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace," and added: "Who cares? They are destroying our country."

The slaying of suspected traffickers has broad public support in a nation fed up with an epidemic of drug abuse. But the killing spree has alarmed human rights advocates, who fear that the biggest casualty will be Thailand's rule of law.

Some rights activists contend that police have organized death squads to kill traffickers and are covering up evidence of official involvement. They also charge that corrupt officers involved in the narcotics trade are colluding with drug lords to slay those who might betray them. There have been several cases, like the deaths in Phetchabun, in which suspects have been killed in broad daylight minutes after leaving a police station, activists say.

"In many provinces, there are death squads roaming around killing drug dealers," said Somchai Homlaor, secretary-general of the human rights group Forum-Asia. "The rule of law and democracy could disappear overnight."

One victim of the war was 9-year-old Chakraphan Srisa-ard. He was riding with his parents in a car in Bangkok on Feb. 23 when his father, Sataporn Srisa-ard, allegedly stopped to make a drug deal. Police say Sataporn tried to sell amphetamines to an undercover officer and was taken into custody.

When the boy's mother, Pornwipa Kerdrungruang, realized what was happening, she slipped behind the wheel and drove off. Shots were fired at the Honda, and the boy was hit twice. His mother ran from the car and escaped.

Police initially admitted shooting at the vehicle. Later, they blamed Chakraphan's death on his father's "guards," who police claim showed up moments after the arrest and shot at the car. Three police officers turned in guns for ballistics testing by their department's laboratory. No match to the bullets was found.

Many victims' families have been reluctant to complain publicly about the deaths of their loved ones, but Chakraphan's killing triggered widespread criticism of the drug war.

Jaran Pakdithanakul, secretary to the president of Thailand's supreme court, warned that summary executions by police were destroying the judicial system. He called the official account of the boy's killing "unbelievable" and said the nation must stop its "bloodthirsty police officers."

Some human rights activists fear a return to the ways of the military dictatorship that ruled Thailand from 1957 to 1973 and employed death squads to eliminate opponents.

Thaksin, a former police officer who became one of the country's wealthiest businessmen before being elected prime minister in 2001, prefers to cast himself as the nation's chief executive, bringing corporate standards to the running of government. At a recent Cabinet meeting, he recommended two books for his ministers to read on methods of business organization.

For the war on drugs, he has set quotas and deadlines for provincial governors and police chiefs to clear names from the blacklists. He has threatened to fire those who don't meet the quota, a move that critics say has prompted some officials to resort to illegal means to save their jobs.

"The government's strategy is to smoke out pushers, who will be eliminated by their own kind," Thaksin said. "I don't understand why some people are so concerned about them while neglecting to care for the future of 1 million children who are being lured into becoming drug users."

Authorities say the country is suffering from an epidemic of methamphetamines known by the name yaa baa, or crazy pills. Thaksin said that 3 million people -- 5% of the country's population -- use the drug, making Thailand the world's largest per capita consumer of methamphetamines.

The little orange pills bearing the letters WY initially provide a sense of energy and well being but after prolonged use become debilitating. Many start out taking yaa baa to help them work long hours. Illegal loggers have been known to feed the drug to their elephants to make the animals work harder in stripping the country's remote rainforests of timber.

About 80% of the yaa baa sold in Thailand is made in neighboring Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, one of the major drug-producing nations. The rest is made in Thailand. The WY pills are exported around the world and have turned up in the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia.

Thailand's narcotics agency has long kept a blacklist with the names of 25,000 suspected drug dealers. Two weeks before the drug war began, police officials and village chiefs hurriedly put together a second list with the names of 45,000 suspected traffickers, including some on the earlier roll. Together the lists cover 55,000 people.

Authorities have no obligation to notify suspects that their names are on the lists, and there is no appeals process for suspects to contest their inclusion.

Authorities say that they have arrested about 30,000 drug suspects since the campaign began, but that few of them are major drug lords or accused of involvement in the nearly 1,500 deaths.

Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunand, acting director of the government's Forensic Science Institute, said she presented evidence to the prime minister's office early this month showing that police were behind some of the killings. His office declined to investigate, she said.

The coroner, who is known for her independence, earlier accused police of torturing and killing suspects. She is regarded as the country's top forensic pathologist. However, since Feb. 1, police have stopped calling her to crime scenes, she said, instead summoning doctors with no forensic experience.

"The police don't want me to find their lies," she said.

During the examination of corpses sent to her morgue, she concluded that some of the drug war victims were killed by police. In some cases, she said, it was obvious that drugs had been planted on the bodies.

"If they were killed by drug dealers, why would the drug dealers put methamphetamines on the body?" she said. "It's a terrible process in Thailand. It's a police state."

The killing of Thanom and Kwanla in Phetchabun might have received little notice except that their son, Suwit Baison, works as a cameraman at a Bangkok television station. The day after their deaths, he stopped Thaksin at a media event, knelt in front of him and presented a petition seeking an investigation.

"I am afraid the culprit won't ever be caught, so I ask for justice from your excellency," Suwit told Thaksin. The prime minister ordered police to investigate. So far they say there are no leads in the killings.

Local authorities say Thanom and Kwanla had been arrested in the past for drug use, although it is unclear whether either was suspected of selling drugs.

"My mother just wanted to prove my father's innocence and they ended up dead," Suwit said in an interview. "It's very cruel."

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