Field notes

A failing drug war triggers new approach in Thailand and Myanmar

BANGKOK • In a backroom heavy with sawdust, Mr Akkarin Puri, 33, carefully examines the veneer of a half-finished guitar.

There was a time when the craftsman's attention was more focused on inhaling the vapours from a pill of yaba - a methamphetamine - heated over a flame.

In fact, by the age of 21, his drug habit had landed him in juvenile detention at least six times and a military lock-up for 18 months.

There, he tried to rob a fellow addict to fund his next fix - and landed himself in jail for another eight years. It was while doing time in a particularly notorious prison, in Pathum Thani province next to Bangkok, that he saw up close one of the gravest consequences of the kingdom's long-running "war on drugs".

The cells were bursting at the seams, with 30 to 40 people crammed into an area the size of a living room. It was a luxury to sleep on his back. The fish and vegetables served for meals were "rotting", he says.

And illicit drugs were still available.

"I used to take yaba or Ice," he tells The Straits Times, referring to the street names for synthetic drugs. "But I changed to Valium in prison. I needed that to stay calm inside and make the time pass faster."

Inmates awaiting an inspection visit in the long-term sentence zone inside Klong Prem high-security prison in Bangkok. Former inmates say Klong Prem has better living conditions than other Thai prisons. PHOTO: REUTERS

Tough, decades-old narcotics laws have crammed prisons in South-east Asia with petty offenders. But drug kingpins - shielded by a combination of corruption, official complicity and weak policing - have largely remained untouched, triggering a recent rethink of the drug control policies.

Mr Akkarin, a former drug addict, now earns a living making guitars. He started a new life with the help of a Christian aid group after he was released from prison. Despite what he experienced in jail, he feels reducing penalties will not help. ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

Myanmar lawmakers earlier this week lamented the ineffectiveness of their state's campaign against illicit drugs. But the problem is widespread, and can be seen starkly in the exploding trade in methamphetamines, of which the amount seized by the authorities in East and South-east Asia and Oceania more than tripled between 2008 and 2013, to almost 42 tonnes, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

"The indicators are bad," says UNODC's regional representative Jeremy Douglas. "We don't see this trend reversing."


The highlands at the confluence of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos form the Golden Triangle, which is one of the world's biggest drug-producing and trafficking hubs.

In Myanmar, where the conflicts between ethnic armed groups and state military forces have reportedly been financed through drug trade, the laws exact a heavy toll on small-scale pushers and addicts.

Its 1993 Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Law, for example, penalises drug users for not registering for medical treatment.

"Drug policies in Myanmar are repressive, outdated and ineffective, and they focus largely on arresting drug users and eradicating opium poppy," researcher Tom Kramer wrote in a report for the Amsterdam-based think-tank Transnational Institute last year.

In Cambodia, officials have cited drug cases - as well as lengthy pre-trial detention of drug suspects - as reasons for the steady rise in the prison population, which crossed 17,500 in October last year, according to a report by the Phnom Penh Post.

Over in Thailand, the sledgehammer approach to drug control means that even the possession of kratom leaves, which are chewed by some farmers for energy, can attract a jail term of up to one year or a fine of up to 20,000 baht (S$770) or both. The indigenous plant stimulates in small doses but sedates in high doses.

Yet Thai officials remember 1996 as the real turning point in its war on drugs. That was when the government classified methamphetamines as a dangerous narcotic, making those who use, produce or sell the substance liable for the harshest sentences. Anyone found to have produced, imported or exported methamphetamines could be jailed for life and fined up to five million baht.

Labourers who used a popular methamphetamine mixture called yaba or "crazy drug" as a stimulant suddenly found themselves at risk of being thrown into jail.

The kingdom's prison population ballooned from 80,000 in 1996 to the current 350,000, of whom 70 per cent are serving time for drug offences.

In a recent interview with The Straits Times,the Justice Ministry's deputy permanent secretary Vitaya Suriyawong - who headed the corrections department last year - conceded that the spike in detentions means prisons are grossly understaffed and ill-equipped, with a staff-inmate ratio of 1:30.

"The kitchen, mess hall… even the toilets were not enough," he says.

Inmates had to eat in shifts. And some prison factories had to be closed down to make space for living quarters.

In these chaotic, understaffed conditions, drugs also found their way into the cells.

Mr Kong, a Chiang Mai native who declines to give his real name, was jailed for six years in 2005 for drug use and being part of a gang fight that killed two people.

"It was like a reunion" in jail, he recalls.

But while his underworld connections gave him access to food, water and drugs in prison, it did not protect him from the illnesses that can spread when thousands of men are crammed together in squalid conditions.

"You wouldn't even think about going to the toilet at night because you would then lose your sleeping spot and have to sit all night," he says. "I developed a bad cough. I was so afraid of tuberculosis because many inmates who had that condition coughed all night."

By the time of his release in 2011, he had lost 10kg.


The fallout from Thailand's dismal drug war had disconcerted members of the judiciary for years, discloses constitutional court judge Jaran Pukditanakul. But many judges, bound by laws dictating minimum sentences for drug offences, were forced to send thousands behind bars.

"This justice system is not reducing the number of criminals," he tells The Straits Times.

"Instead, it is producing new traffickers and new sellers."

While drug pushers who are locked away are easily replaced by others on the streets, those behind bars "become even more efficient criminals with wider connections", he says.

"What we created became more harmful and more dangerous to our people than the drug itself."

But changes are afoot.

Thai authorities are now mulling over reclassifying certain types of addictive substances and even allowing for some controlled use under medical supervision.

Draft legal changes recently approved by the Cabinet will mete out more proportional sentences, and also emphasise rehabilitation over jail terms for drug addicts.

Justice Minister Paiboon Kumchaya tells The Straits Times he expects the new legal regime to be put in place before the term of his military government ends.

Over in Myanmar, work on revising drug laws started by the previous administration is now being continued in earnest by the new government led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi.

Among the draft changes on the table are reduced penalties for petty offenders, as well as scrapping the requirement for drug users to register themselves.

The general idea is to divert some resources from maintaining prisons to law enforcement, with a focus on catching big-time traffickers, says Mr Douglas.

Over in Singapore, where drug traffickers can be jailed and caned, the Government has refused to budge on its tough stance on drugs. Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, addressing world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly in April, said: "For us, the choice is clear. We want a drug-free Singapore, not a drug-tolerant Singapore," he said.

Thai officials, meanwhile, are bracing themselves for the difficult task of convincing the public that what is considered a "softer" approach may be more effective in tackling the scourge of drugs in the long run.

They would have to convince people like Mr Akkarin, who kicked his drug addiction and started a new life with the help of a Christian aid group after being released from prison. Despite what he experienced in jail, he is adamant that reducing penalties would not help.

In fact, he approves of the "war on drugs" initiated by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2003, which was later associated with thousands of extrajudicial killings and coerced treatment of drug addicts. "If the laws are stricter, then people would be scared," Mr Akkarin insists.

For entire generations brought up on the "zero tolerance" rhetoric on drugs, anything other than harsh penalties may appear alien.

"We told them that narcotic drugs are bad, get rid of them all," recalls Justice Jaran. "It's not easy to educate society (now), particularly when you have to go against the concept that has been planted in their heads.

"It's like telling people in Thailand not to eat rice."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 06, 2016, with the headline A failing drug war triggers new approach in Thailand and Myanmar. Subscribe