Lessons For Duterte, Why Thailand Softened Its Drug War

The current deadly war on drugs in the Philippines echoes what happened in Thailand in the early 2000s — massive arrests and a wave of extrajudicial killings. Officials in Bangkok now admit the crackdown didn't work, th

Thai police officer and seized drugs at the police HQ in Bangkok
Thai police officer and seized drugs at the police HQ in Bangkok
Kannikar Petchkaew

BANGKOK â€" Winai was just 12 years old when he started taking amphetamine pills. Weeks later, he was buying and selling them too.

"I was addicted to them from my first go," recalls Winai, not his real name. "It felt good, taking the drug and also making money from selling. I bought each pill for 30 baht $0.80 and then sold them for 80 $2.30. So I was getting rich."

Winai dropped out of school and spent the next 15 years dealing drugs and committing petty crime. In 2005, he was arrested and charged with attempted murder, theft and drug use. He was sentenced to 12 years in jail, but later served only four years due to good behavior.

Yet when Winai was released, he went straight back into dealing and using drugs. "We ran into our old circles inside the jail â€" the big dealers or big bosses," Winai said. "We learned all the bad things from them and promised them that once we were out we would go to their wives, take the drugs and be a mule for them. That's pretty much how it turned out."

It was back in 2003, with an escalating number of high-profile drug cases, that the Thai government declared a war on drugs. Police were given a license to use "extreme measures" to curb the sale of drugs like ecstasy and methamphetamines.

The three-month reign of police terror left at least 2,000 people dead. Winai says he was too young and too intoxicated to be afraid.

Paiboon Koomchaya, an army general and the minister of justice in Thailand’s current military-controlled government, looks back on the harsh crackdown as a total failure. "Massive arrests and harsh punishment just lead to a massive loss of lives. And now every country faces the same problem: overcrowded jails," he says.

The number of inmates jailed for drug convictions has nearly doubled over the past decade. With a prison population of more than 300,000, Thailand now has the eighth-highest incarceration rate in the world, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Some 70% of inmates are serving time for drug-related offenses.

Opting for a new approach

Koomchaya says the country's proposed new anti-narcotics laws will help shift the focus toward rehabilitation, rather than incarceration. "To deal with drug offenders we will focus on their rights to access proper healthcare services and the right to be cured," the minister says. "Access to proper medication can help them stop taking drugs."

But Koomchaya also wants it to be clear that Thailand is going soft on drugs, and capital punishment for major drug offenses will continue to be applied. "Big-time drug dealers will face harsh penalties. Even as we soften the drug policy, we will still have the death penalty," says.

Winai says he has been clean for three years now â€" since his daughter was born. He lives with his wife in northern Thailand and runs a food stall.

Winai says the new approach, rehab rather than jail, could really help. Going to jail, spending time with other criminals and dealers doesn't work, he says. "When faced with the same friends, the same environment, there will be the same problem. They will be lulled back into it again and again."

But even if the new law is passed later this year, changes may be slow to arrive. There are only a limited number of rehabilitation centers across the country, although the government does plan to build four more.

Of course the region is infamous for the Golden Triangle, a huge drug production hub in the hills of the border area of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. "We need to seal off the Golden Triangle," Koomchaya says. "Without that we can’t solve this problem. We need to destroy these drug production sites."

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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