War on drugs: Yingluck’s turn

Yingluck’s recent announcement to renew the country’s war on drugs may bring a chill to some given her brother’s past performance. But to many Thais Thaksin’s crackdown on drugs remains a testament to his effective and bold leadership – especially in comparison to subsequent governments’ efforts.

A NIDA Poll taken in April 2011 shows that respondents from all regions of Thailand (even the south) were quite satisfied with Thaksin’s anti-narcotics campaign, and much more so when compared to that of Abhisit’s government.[1] During Peau Thai’s election campaign, it became increasingly clear that Thaksin’s anti-narcotics policy was seen as effective and even desirable. Despite his strategies being heavy-handed and violent , they continue to prove popular among Thais and were brought back, albeit with minor adjustment, by the  Samak Somchai and, now, Yingluck governments.

Thaksin’s policy was popular then and still is.[2]

Supporters of Thaksin’s anti-drugs approach insist that his policy worked. From Thanin to Abhisit, few governments made anti-drug policy an urgent priority.[3] But under Thaksin, deputy prime ministers, ministers, chiefs of police, governors, all the way down to village headmen were held directly responsible for seeing this policy through. Between 2001 – 2005, there were more than half a million drug-related charges (while the murder rate doubled). According to the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB), the price of “crazy pills” jumped from around 60 baht to 300 baht, while heroin’s price skyrocketed.[4] Thaksin spent more than 14 billion baht before he proclaimed the victory over his war on drugs. The public was ecstatic. Poll after poll showed popular support towards Thaksin’s policy.

Since then drugs have “returned” and once again become a major problem for Thais, admits the ONCB. In 2004, the anti-drug agency survey revealed merely 1.8% of the respondents felt narcotics were a national problem. By early 2011, the figure had become 23.4%.[5] Queen Sirikit’s birthday speech asking the newly formed government to make drugs a policy priority reinforced its urgency. Yingluck put Chalerm in charge of counter-narcotics, whereby he announced a 7-4-3-6 formula that targets dealers and youth at risk – much of which resembled the policy of Thaksin.[6]

When asked whether there would be any more of the “silencing killings”, Yingluck said there weren’t any cases (during Thaksin time) that would qualify as such. She also added she would take extra precautions by ensuring that all interrogations be completed within 30 days.[7] Acting police chief, Praewpan Damapong, later announced a reward of 2-baht-per-pill for any amphetamines confiscated.[8]

Thaksin’s policy could not have been a “victory” if the drugs are back as soon as he was out of office. It lacked sustainability. But Thais were willing to accept his policy aimed at “winning the war on drugs” despite more than 2,500 alleged extrajudicial killings and scores being put in jail without due process.

Perhaps the problem is not Thaksin, it is us.