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Thailand Says It is Winning War on Illegal Drugs - 2003-02-19

Thailand's police and drug enforcement authorities are claiming success after two weeks of a promised three month crackdown on illegal drugs. But there are fears that the police are taking things too far.

Six Thai government ministries issued a claim of success in the drug war, just two weeks into Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's war on illegal drugs.

The Office of Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) is the main arm of the anti-drug force. It reported that 596 people have died violently since the campaign started. It said police have seized more than six million methamphetamine tablets - the main target of the crackdown.

Each year Thailand is swamped by more than 800 million amphetamine tablets produced in illegal factories in the northern provinces of neighboring Burma. Thai authorities say the factories are run by Burma's ethnic-minority groups, in league with Thai drug syndicates.

The prime minister launched his three-month campaign in early February, with warnings that local officials face punishment if they fail to produce results. About 720 government officials are reported being investigated on suspicion of being linked to drug trafficking.

More than a million of Thailand's young people are believed to be abusing methamphetamines, known locally as "ya ba", the crazy medicine.

The police say they have arrested more than 15,000 suspected traffickers, and another 10,000 people have turned themselves in seeking protection from the gangs.

The police maintain that the vast majority of the deaths have come at the hands of feuding drug traffickers, and that the police themselves have killed only a couple of dozen people.

But commentator and editor Thepchai Yong says that while the government should be credited for its efforts, the soaring death toll raises serious questions. "My concern is that it looks like the government, especially the prime minister, has practically given the green light to the police to get rid of suspected drug dealers. And judging from the death toll, which has been rising during the past week, I think the police are getting serious in taking the law into their own hands. I mean literally, by killing the suspects," Mr. Thepchai said.

Human rights groups and forensic scientists have said that the police are refusing to turn bodies over to the scientists for medical analysis. Mr. Thepchai says this is another sign that the police might have something to hide.

"Thailand's human rights record is being challenged by this killing spree and the fact that the police have been reluctant in having forensic experts verify the killing to prove that these are really drug suspects, or killed by double crossing as claimed by the police," he said.

He says the government needs to adopt a longer-term strategy of education about the dangers of drugs, and should provide Thailand's youth with alternatives to drugs, including more outdoor recreational facilities.