No sign of drug reform in Thailand

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Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan arrives at Army Club, in Bangkok, Thailand December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

The Ministry of Defence has weighed in on drug trafficking but in the most familiar manner. Briefed by his boss, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantravanich repeated an official litany that is no longer impressive. In short, drug seizures are up, drug arrests continue to increase. As a reporter for this newspaper wrote, this combination of factors “will pave the way for more arrests”.

This is undoubtedly correct. Drug arrests have increased for years. In many provincial prisons, more than 70 percent of those serving time – male and female – are behind bars on drug charges. The Department of Corrections’ latest national report stated that about 90 percent of prisoners in the Rayong provincial lockup were jailed for drug offences.

As arrests have increased, so has the rate of recidivism. In three years from 2015 to 2017, the number of drug offenders rearrested nationwide doubled from 17 percent of prisoners to 33 percent. All prisons are overcrowded, a violation of basic human rights that authorities have neither the time, budget nor inclination to fix.

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All of this, as insiders and the well-informed understand, is for show. But here has been a rare moment of candour. Last week, about the time Lt Gen Kongcheep was trying to sell a story of progress, an independent, outside group was telling a more factual tale – the International Crisis Group (ICG)’s report entitled “Fire and Ice: Conflict and Drugs in Myanmar’s Shan State”. In 36 well-edited pages, it factually shreds the official tales of progress that governments and their spokesmen try to sell.

Here is the report’s answer to Gen Prawit’s anti-drug committee, for example. The Shan State, which borders northern Thailand, including Chiang Mai, is “a crystal methamphetamine hub … one of the largest producers – if not the largest producer – of meth in the world”. And not only does the massive production make the Myanmar-based drug cartels immune to the relatively puny drug seizures heralded in Bangkok. The same is true for ya ba or meth tablets. In addition, northern Myanmar, including the Shan State, remains the world’s second-biggest source of internationally trafficked heroin.

The drug traffickers of northern Myanmar have effectively won the war on drugs. Like many observers, the Crisis Group believes the country’s military, the tatmadaw, is physically incapable of tackling the drug lords’ private armies. Last week’s ICG report demanded that China take military action against the traffickers.

That suggestion is no more outlandish than this government’s continued efforts to press the “war on drugs”. Absent international cooperation means that policy cannot prevail, and it is obvious that Myanmar cannot or will not cooperate.

Meanwhile, international crime families are taking control of the Myanmar drug gangs. They are becoming more professional, more business-like, more vicious and evermore dangerous to Thai youths, families and communities. The government has promised but failed to come to grips with the problem. It continues to flail, seizing random drug shipments and arresting thousands. The situation will not improve until the government keeps its promise to reform drug laws, from top to bottom.

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