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Thai Anti-Drug Campaign Still Controversial Despite Recent Success - 2003-12-03

The Thai government says its 10-month war on drugs has been a success - with tens of thousands of dealers and pushers off the streets and hundreds of thousands of addicts seeking treatment. But the anti-drug campaign remains controversial and its long-tern effectiveness is in question.

Last February, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared his government would wage a war against drug dealers, producers and traffickers. Wednesday, he announced an outright victory.

The Thai Interior Ministry reports more than 52,000 drug dealers were arrested and some 300,000 drug addicts have been through rehabilitative treatment.

Much of the 10-month campaign focused on ridding the streets of illegal stimulant-type amphetamines. United Nations statistics had placed Thailand as the country most affected by amphetamine abuse with close to three million addicts.

But a senior official with the Thai Narcotics Control Board, Rasamee Wisthaveth, says the illegal drug situation is now under control.

"At least I think we can really control the situation because, in the past, the availability of drugs in the community is so high, and lots of people abuse drugs especially young people," he said.

Nithaya Mahaphol - a spokeswoman for the Thai Health Ministry, which has coordinated drug rehabilitation - says the government's campaign has led to a dramatic rise in those seeking treatment.

"At the first year of the war against drugs we have enrolled about 70,000 or 80,000 (addicts) a year. And then in 2003 it increased dramatically - let's say about six times up to about 500,000 patients," he explained.

She says there is much still to be done to rid Thailand of the scourge of drug abuse and education programs will be needed to ensure these recent gains are sustained.

The apparent victory has been tempered by concerns over police and government methods in fighting the illegal drug trade.

In the first few months of the campaign, drug related murders soared and some 2,500 suspected drug dealers were killed. Human rights groups say, in some cases, the police were guilty of extra-judicial killings. "The high cost is that the rule of law in our country has been eroded," said Somchai Homlar, Lawyer and spokesman for human rights group Forum Asia.

The government denies overstepping the law and says most of those killed died in drug gang violence and shootouts with law enforcement.

Amnesty International asserts that Thailand has failed to fully investigate the deaths - so it is hard to know the extent of the abuse of the justice system - if any.

Critics also say the war on drugs may have cleaned up street-level pushing, but has not touched top drug traffickers.

Bangkok's largest slum community of Klong Toey - rampant with gangs, drugs and prostitution - became a microcosm in the battle.

Father Joe Maier, a Catholic priest who has worked for three decades in Klong Toey, says the drug crackdown only provided short-term gains.

"Well they shot a bunch of people, put a bunch of in jail - there's a bunch of people on the run. It's terrible," he said. "They [the authorities] are chortling, chortling in their success, which unfortunately - in my opinion - will be short lived."

Father Joe says the campaign failed to address the fundamental issues of poverty - often at the core of substance abuse.

"It's very quiet in Klong Toey. Can you still buy drugs - of course you can. But there's no playground, there's no better schooling, there's no more jobs," he said.

Father Joe and other critics say the statistics only tell part of the story and that with amphetamines harder to buy, many drug abusers have simply looked for alternative substances - including glue sniffing - to meet their habit.

For Thailand, future actions will determine if the government has stopped rampant amphetamine and substance abuse or merely stemmed a flow that will soon return.