Government’s stern threat against influential ‘targets’ brings to mind Thaksin’s bloody war on drugs
In early 2003, then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared a “war on drugs”. The initiative proved highly controversial. It won a great deal of public support, but the fallout hurt his administration and caused lasting damage to the reputation of Thai law enforcement.
Meant to eradicate all methamphetamine use in Thailand within three months, the high-profile crackdown saw thousands of kilos of seized pills and paraphernalia paraded in front of the press week after week. Yet, despite the growing mountain of confiscated drugs, the size and frequency of the hauls never dwindled. The supply was bottomless and the demand was soaring.
Thaksin knew the public was fed up with illicit drugs being sold in their neighbourhoods and, as a shrewd politician, devised a policy that would lift his public rating.
Along with drug seizures, the body count among alleged drug traffickers and addicts became the benchmark of success. In the three months of the war on drugs more than 3,000 people were killed. The government claimed that only 50 of them died at the hands of the police – the remainder stemmed from “bad guys killing bad guys”. Despite mounting concern in some quarters over rights violations and the sheer impossibility of halting drug traffic, the majority of citizens cheered on the campaign and its architect.
To this day, that widespread support for an inhumane and pointless massacre reflects a deep and abiding flaw in Thai society. The eagerness to use force to solve social problems demonstrates a neglect of justice and the rule of law.
Now, seeking public approval to match Thaksin’s during a time of growing discontent over issues ranging from restricted freedom of speech to the economic slowdown, General Prawit Wongsuwan, deputy prime minister in charge of security, has announced a crackdown on corrupt “people of influence”.
Prawit has avoided using the word “war”, but the ramifications of what he is planning could be a chilling echo of 2003, given the deep-rooted culture of impunity among police and soldiers and authorities’ willingness to use force to tackle social problems.
On the orders of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the police, intelligence agencies and the Interior Ministry have compiled a list of “targets”. Prawit says the names will be verified over the next two months and then the crackdown will commence.
He warns that anyone thinking of “stirring up trouble” should abandon the idea, perhaps giving the people targeted time to mend their ways and escape the government’s wrath. Thaksin allowed for no such grace period, of course, adding to the global condemnation his war on drugs incurred.
Then, as now, such criticism falls on deaf ears. Thai governments routinely ignore alarms raised by civil-society organisations. And why should the current regime heed its critics when its approval rating is allegedly 99.3 per cent, as claimed by the National Statistical Office? As has been pointed out already in numerous platforms, such overwhelming popularity has its only precedents in North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
In any case, governments should not be clamping down on nefarious “influential people” once every so often and never as a means of
bolstering public support. Corruption is a scourge that must be battled every day and by everyone from law-enforcement agencies to public watchdogs.
Prawit can emulate Thaksin all he wants in attempting to eradicate corrupting elements in our society, but if the underlying socio-economic problems feeding the illicit behaviour aren’t addressed, there will always be drug pushers in the neighbourhood and there will always be graft and influence-peddling.
That basic fact will not change regardless of the sitting government’s popularity ranking.