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Thailand's Drug War Effective, But Deadly

Thailand's newly declared war on illegal drugs has claimed the lives of more than 300 people this month and seen 15,000 alleged traffickers arrested. Thai police say they are on the right track, but human rights groups are expressing concern about the scale of violence by drug syndicates and authorities.

At the beginning of February, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched a three-month special campaign to rid Thailand of illegal drugs.

This war on drugs is specifically targeting the lucrative amphetamine trade - known as ya ba or the crazy medicine. More than 800 million amphetamines flow through Thailand - some produced locally, but most are smuggled from neighboring Burma.

The police crack down on drug peddlers has been violent. Some 320 people have been killed - 15 of whom were shot by police. The rest appear to be victims of the rivalry between drug syndicates now under intense pressure from authorities.

Police say they are not using excessive force to eradicate the illegal drug trade and point to some 15,000 arrests of alleged traffickers as proof their efforts are working.

“Ninety days from now is still a long way to go,” said National Police Bureau spokesman Major General Pongsapat Pongcharoen. “But for the first 15 days we believe we come by the right way to this of war on drugs; but we have to wait and see what goes on for the next two months and 15 days.

General Pongsapat says since the crackdown, police have seized six million methamphetamine tablets and there is less trade. The increasing scarcity of the illegal drug has led street prices of amphetamines to triple to more than six dollars a pill.

A wave of fear now sweeps many small time drug peddlers and some 10,000 have surrendered to police fearing they will be the next target of the drug syndicates trying to minimize the risk of informants.

Local and international human rights groups, such as Thailand's Human Rights Commission, have expressed fears the police are taking the law into their own hands to make this operation a success and that innocent individuals will fall prey to the wave of bloodshed.

But the United Nations Drugs Control Program (UNDCP) regional representative, Sandro Calvani, says the wave of violence comes as no surprise and it is not really the fault of authorities.

“It's not surprising because the violence has always been associated with organized crime,” he said. “Organized crime's only goal is to get rich fast. If anybody opposes it, be it another gang, the government, normally organized crime will kill first and discuss later.”

Mr. Calvani says the government still has much to do in its fight against the powerful drug syndicates, which have taken hold throughout Thai society.

“Fighting organized crime in Thailand is extremely difficult because one billion pills being distributed to such a large network and such a large market,” he said. “It's not easy to stop this trafficking.”

The government is not apologizing for its get-tough policy. It has proclaimed the growing flood of amphetamines as a threat to national security with an estimated one million young people believed to be suffering from amphetamine addiction.

Chulalongkorn University political scientist, Chaiyachoke Chulasiriwong, says while the policy appears “harsh, ”there is general community support for the government's crackdown on the illegal drug trade.

“Actually the ordinary people are quite happy with what the government is doing although that touches on the human rights principles,” he said.

International narcotics authorities say it is still too early to judge the campaign a success. Authorities told VOA the question remains whether Thailand can halt the flood of amphetamines in the months ahead or whether the campaign just merely stems the tide.