<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

IV. Human Rights Abuses and the War on Drugs

They will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace. Who cares? They are destroying our country.
—Interior Minister Wan Muhamad Nor Matha, referring to drug dealers, January 20031 

In many provinces, there are death squads roaming around killing drug dealers. The rule of law and democracy could disappear overnight.
—Somchai Homlaor, secretary-general, Forum Asia, March 20032

Thailand’s “war on drugs” began in February 2003 for the official reason of responding to a boom in methamphetamines, locally known as ya baa or “crazy pills.”  The country had traditionally been associated with the trade in injected heroin through the Golden Triangle, a vast mountainous region spanning Burma, Thailand, and Laos.  Between 1993 and 2001, methamphetamine use in Thailand rose an estimated 1,000 percent and, according to government estimates, overtook heroin as the drug of choice in the country.3  Most ya baa was produced and smuggled from neighboring Burma and, to a lesser extent, Laos.  By 2002, an estimated 2.4 percent of Thais aged twelve to sixty-five, including 4.5 percent of males, were using methamphetamines.4

In December 2002, Thailand’s revered constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, called on the government to bring the “methamphetamine problem” under control.  Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra seized the opportunity, announcing on January 28, 2003, that a “war on drugs” would be waged on drug dealers.  The use of the term “war” was apt: over the next three months more than 2,000 people in Thailand were killed as the government effectively declared “open season” on those accused of involvement in the drug trade.  The crackdown saw rampant human rights violations, including government promotion of violence against drug suspects, extrajudicial executions, blacklisting of drug suspects without due process, intimidation of human rights defenders, and violence and other breaches of due process by the Royal Thai Police.

Promotion of violence by government officials

Deviating sharply from Thailand's previous efforts to build the rule of law, Thaksin called for his war on drugs to be conducted on the basis of an “eye for an eye.”  Prime Minister’s Order 29/B.E. 2546 (2003), signed on January 28, 2003, called for the absolute suppression of drug trafficking by means “ranging from soft to harsh including the most absolutely severe charges subject to the situation.”5  The document stated that “[i]f a person is charged with a drug offence, that person will be regarded as a dangerous person who is threatening social and national security.”  In the ensuing weeks, the Ministry of the Interior gave each province in the country targets for the number of arrests of suspected drug traffickers and seizures of narcotics.  Police and other officials were offered cash incentives for arrests and seizures, while senior officials such as governors and police chiefs stood to lose their jobs if targets were not met.  The Prime Minister said of the cash incentives that “at three Baht [U.S.$0.07] per methamphetamine tablet seized, a government official can become a millionaire by upholding the law, instead of begging for kickbacks from the scum of society.”6

This was not what King Bhumibol apparently had in mind when he called for a solution to the methamphetamine problem, as he later expressed misgivings about the ferocity of the government’s program.7  Thaksin and his government discovered that there were political benefits in taking harsh measures against drugs.  Thaksin’s popularity soared, as Thais apparently sought a stronger approach to drug abuse.8  Thaksin’s near monopoly over state and private broadcast media hid most of the campaign’s worst abuses from public view and allowed the government’s message that all of those killed and targeted were dangerous criminals—and not men, women, and children against whom no charge had been laid—to gain popular acceptance.

Throughout the drug war, Thaksin and other government leaders repeatedly appeared to give the green light to use violence against suspected drug dealers.  “In this war, drug dealers must die,” Thaksin said. “But we don't kill them. It's a matter of bad guys killing bad guys.”9  Whether in favor or opposed to the crackdown, few in Thailand found this denial credible.  Thaksin made his intentions even clearer in August 2003 when he said that Thai security forces would “shoot to kill” when they encountered Burmese drug traffickers on Thai soil.10  A regional police commander, Pichai Sunthornsajjabun, was reported as saying in reference to the drug war killings, “a normal person lives for eighty years, but a bad person should not live that long.”11

In his January 14, 2003 speech announcing the campaign, the Prime Minister borrowed a quote from a former police chief known for having orchestrated political assassinations in the 1950s.  “There is nothing under the sun which the Thai police cannot do,” he said, adding, “Because drug traders are ruthless to our children, so being ruthless back to them is not a bad thing . . . . It may be necessary to have casualties . . . . If there are deaths among traders, it’s normal.”12  Then Interior Minister Wan Muhamad Nor Matha said of drug traffickers, “They will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace.  Who cares?  They are destroying our country.”13

Extrajudicial Killings

In the first three-month phase of the crackdown that began on February 1, 2003, the Royal Thai Police reported that some 2,275 alleged drug criminals had been killed.14  Most were shot with handguns.  The government initially claimed that fifty-one had been killed by police in self-defense and the rest in battles among dealers.  In October 2003, Thailand’s foreign minister told the U.S. State Department that 2,593 homicide cases had occurred in the country since the previous February, more than double the normal level of about 400 homicides per month.15  On December 15, 2003, after the end of the first phases of the campaign, the Royal Thai Police reported 1,329 drug-related homicides (out of 1,176 separate incidents) since February, of which seventy-two (in fifty-eight incidents) had been killed by police.  More than 70,000 people allegedly involved in the drug trade were arrested.

According to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the first murders took place hours before the official start of the war on drugs.  Late on January 31, 2003, Boonchuay Unthong and Yupin Unthong were shot and killed as they returned home with their son, Jirasak, eight years old, from a local fair in Ban Rai, Damnoen Saduak district, Ratchaburi.  Witnesses described seeing a man on the back of a motorcycle, wearing a ski mask, shoot Yupin, who was riding on the back of the family motorcycle. Boonchuay exhorted Jirasak to run away.  Jirasak hid behind a fence and watched as the gunmen walked up to Boonchuay and executed him with a shot to the head.  Convicted for a drug offense, Boonchuay had recently been released after eighteen months in prison.  It was subsequently discovered that Yupin and he had been placed on a government blacklist.

The first day of the campaign, February 1, saw four killings.  By February 5, six people had been shot dead, and a week later the death toll stood at eighty-seven.16  Fifteen days into the campaign, the Interior Ministry announced that 596 people had been shot dead since February 1, eight of them by police “in self-defense.”17  The deaths of alleged drug dealers, both those killed by police and those killed by others, were included in a February 17 report of the Ministry of the Interior informing the government about the progress of the campaign.  The government actively publicized the deaths on state-controlled television and radio as well as in newspapers, claiming that drug dealers were killing their peers to prevent them from leaking information to authorities. 

The police’s unwillingness to investigate these deaths, combined with the unusually high number of drug-related homicides compared to years past,18 cast doubt on the credibility of the government’s story.  Medical professionals complained that they were not being allowed to perform autopsies and that bullets were being removed from victims.19  The head of Thailand’s Forensic Sciences Institute noted that, unlike before the war on drugs, the police were not seeking the Institute’s help in differentiating so-called gangland killings from extrajudicial executions.20

While the campaign of extrajudicial executions was broadly popular, some of the killings provoked public concern and revulsion.  Among those killed was Chakraphan Srisa-ard, a nine-year-old boy who was shot on February 23 as police fired at a car carrying him and his mother.21  On February 26, a sixteen-month-old baby, nicknamed “Ice,” was in her mother’s arms when she and her mother, Raiwan Khwanthongyen, thirty-eight, were shot and killed by an unknown gunman in Sa Dao District, Songkhla.  The killings followed the fatal shooting of Raiwan’s older brother on February 5.  Police Lieutenant Phakdi Preechachon, the officer in charge of the investigation, reported that police had assumed the mother’s and infant’s killing was gang-related because of Raiwan’s brother’s involvement in the drug trade.  Police in Songkhla declined an interview with Human Rights Watch and, as of this writing, have not found the killer.

On February 24, 2003, just over three weeks into the drug war, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Asma Jahangir, expressed “deep concern at reports of more than 100 deaths in Thailand in connection with a crackdown on the drug trade.”22  In fact, Thailand’s Interior Ministry had the day before reported the deaths of 993 suspects, 977 of which they attributed to “gangland killings.”23  Jahangir called for strict limits on the use of lethal force by police, consistent with international law, as well as prompt, transparent, and independent investigations into each individual death.  Prime Minister Thaksin retorted, “Do not worry about this.  The U.N. is not my father.  We as a U.N. member must follow international regulations.  Do not ask too much.  There is no problem.  They can come and investigate.”24

To stem an onslaught of negative publicity, on February 26, the Interior Ministry banned the release of statistics on drug-related deaths,25 though more were later released.  On March 2, 2003, police placed the death toll at 1,035, including thirty-one drug suspects shot by officers in self-defense.26 

At the beginning of May 2003, Prime Minister Thaksin declared “victory” in the war on drugs and announced a second phase that would last until the following December.  By that time, the Royal Thai Police announced that 2,275 people had been killed, of whom fifty-one had been shot by police in self-defense.27  The Department of Local Administration and the Royal Thai Police fired or disciplined some village chiefs and police officers toward the end of the campaign; however, the government never stopped offering police cash incentives for seized drug assets or disciplining officials who failed to meet arrest targets.28 

On December 2, 2003, Thaksin again declared “victory” in the war on drugs and presented cash awards to agencies and officials who had taken part in the campaign.  He awarded gifts of Thai Baht (B)50,000 (U.S.$1,275) and B100,000 (U.S.$2,550) respectively to officials who had been injured in the course of combating the drug trade and children of those killed in the campaign.  He claimed that while drugs had not disappeared from the country, “[w]e are now in a position to declare that drugs, which formerly were a big danger to our nation, can no longer hurt us.”29  Thaksin proceeded to announce a third, ten-month phase of the drug war, the purpose of which was “to maintain the strong communities and the strength of the people for the sustainability in overcoming the drug problem in every area throughout the country.”30

Throughout his anti-drug campaign, the Prime Minister repeatedly brushed off allegations of extrajudicial killings.  In February 2004, the U.S. State Department reported that Thailand’s human rights record had “worsened with regard to extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests,” claiming that “[t]here was a significant increase in killings of criminal suspects” and that press reports indicated that “more than 2,000 alleged drug suspects were killed during confrontations with police during a 3-month war on drugs from February to April.”31  That month, Prime Minister Thaksin called the United States an “annoying friend” for its human rights report and ordered a new round of drug suppression, resulting in the arrest of 839 people in Bangkok in one day on February 27, 2004.32

Case Studies

A full accounting of the deaths of close to 3,000 individuals in the period of Thailand’s war on drugs requires thorough and transparent investigation by trained forensic experts.  The following case studies are based on press reports, eyewitness accounts, and detailed interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch researchers.  Clearly needed are full investigations by the Thai Ministry of Justice and National Human Rights Commission, supported by the highest levels of the Thai government.

Case Study: The killing of Somjit Khayandee

On February 20, 2003, Somjit Khayandee, a forty-two-year-old grocery shop owner, was shot dead in her shop-house at 212/1, Mu 8, Tambon Ban Laem, Petchburi Province.

A family member present when she was killed told Human Rights Watch:

It was late in the afternoon.  Somjit was busy with customers as usual when four men entered the shop. They were wearing black shirts and black pants. All of them had sunglasses and caps. Their hair outside the caps was quite short. They asked Somjit if she had beer and could open the bottles for them. Somjit took two bottles of beer from the refrigerator, opened them and handed the bottles to those men. It was then that one of the men shot her with a pistol. The first bullet hit her left hand, near her wrist. Somjit fell to the ground. That man jumped over her body and shot seven more rounds at her at point-blank range. The shooting took place in front of me, Somjit’s seven-months pregnant daughter, Somjit’s seven-year-old granddaughter and four other relatives. The four men then left the shop. They drove away in a red Mitsubishi pickup truck. But I could not see the plate number.

About half an hour later, local police arrived at the scene. They did not collect shells or any evidence. However, they said they were confident that it was ka tat ton [a “cut-off” killing, a term used by the government for most killings that took place during the war on drugs, allegedly committed by drug gangs to silence their members from reporting to the authorities].  They also said that Somjit’s name was on the blacklist and she had gone to report to them [the police] three days before she was killed.

I did not know how her name was on the blacklist. When she went to report to the police, she said they gave her a document and told her to sign it as a testimony to assure that she did not have any involvement in drug dealing. They told her that they would remove her name from the blacklist. But Somjit was almost illiterate. She could barely read and write.

The witness told Human Rights Watch that he and others present at the killing were worried about their safety.

I do not think the police can protect us. The killing of Somjit had very bad effects on everyone, especially the little girl [Somjit’s seven-year-old granddaughter who saw the shooting]. She is very depressed and sad.

Somjit’s daughter was present at the scene, too.  She told Human Rights Watch:

I was seven-months pregnant when Somjit was shot. I saw the shooting. It was very cruel.  After my mother was killed, the police asked me to go to the district police station only once. They asked me if she was a drug dealer. I said my mother was a good person, she never sold drugs or knew anyone in that business. She also had no personal conflicts with anyone. That was the only time I was called in to talk to the police about my mother’s death.

The police told me that they had received a tip-off about Somjit. They said a woman called them at night, around 10:00 p.m., on February 16, 2003 and told them that Somjit was a drug dealer and was hiding ya baa [methamphetamine] in her shop house. But the police never came to search our place. The next day Somjit was called by the police to go to the district police station to verify her name on the blacklist. Then my mother was killed three days later. On February 18, 2003, my neighbor was also killed. He was told to report to the police and verify his name on the blacklist as well.  How could he be a drug dealer, he was very old and paralyzed?

I do not understand. If the police believe that my mother was a drug dealer, they should have come and searched our shop house. But they never came until now.  They did not seem to be interested in investigating and arresting people that killed my mother although they said she was killed by a drug gang. If the police know that a drug gang killed my mother, they should go and arrest those people.

Our family is very poor. We should have been much better off if my mother was selling drugs as the police said. My mother was in debt, more than one hundred thousand baht. We still have to pay money back to banks, mortgage companies and loan sharks for her until today. If the police come to confiscate our belongings, we will have nothing left to survive.

The daughter was worried about having her possessions confiscated, because it was common during the war on drugs for those killed or arrested to have their money and properties confiscated in a broad interpretation of Thailand’s anti-money laundering law.

To date, no one has been arrested for the death of Somjit, and there is no sign that any serious investigation has ever been conducted.

Case Study: The killings of Sia-Jua Sae Thao, Somchai Sae Thao, Bunma Sae Thao, and Saeng Sae Thao

On February 12, 2003, just after noon, on the route to Wat Dhama Kaya Temple, Ban Neun Village, in Lom Kao District, Petchaborn Province (about fourteen kilometers from the victims’ village), four men were murdered as part of the war on drugs.  They were Sia-Jua Sae Thao (forty-five), Somchai Sae Thao (Sia-Jua’s brother), Bunma Sae Thao (fifty-nine, the cousin of Sia-Jua and Somchai), and Saeng Sae Thao (fifty-two, the village chief).  All were farmers; all were ethnic Hmong.
The four were killed on the way home from a visit to the district police station.  According to official sources, none of the victims had a previous record of drug-related activity. The police summarily classified their murders as “cut-off killings.”

Witnesses said that Sia-Jua had received an order on February 11, 2003, to report to the court in Petchaborn Province the next day in relation to an unlicensed firearms offence for which he had been charged in early December 2002.  Sia-Jua went to ask the village chief, Saeng, to go to the court with him to be his bailer.  He found that the village chief had also received a letter from Lom Kao district office, saying that Saeng was a drug user and drug dealer of ya baa. Saeng was instructed to report to the district office.

On February 12, 2003, Sia-Jua and Saeng went together to report to the authorities.  They traveled in Saeng’s white pickup truck with Somchai, whom Sia-Jua had requested to accompany him.  Bunma asked to ride with them to buy medicine for his daughter in town.

A relative of Sia-Jua claims that a court official, who did not want to be named, told him two days later that there was no summons for Sia-Jua.  The summons had allegedly been forged.  A district official told a family member that the same was true for Saeng, since the official in charge was not present.

Villagers from Ban Neun Village, where the shooting took place, report that they saw police officers in uniform and plain clothes arriving on motorcycles and waiting near the crime scene before Sia-Jua and his colleagues were killed.  A witness alleged that on the day the National Human Rights Commission conducted its investigation, these villagers were told by police officers from Lom Kao District police station not to report what they saw or talk to anyone about it.

Relatives of the victims, none of whom wanted to be named in a public report, said that after the shooting they went to the scene and found the bodies of the four men on the roadside.  The village chief’s pickup truck was missing.  There were police officers from Lom Kao District police station at the scene.  All four men had been shot in the head.  According to witnesses:

  • the upper part of Sia-Jua’s body had many bruises, his face had bruises, and his jaw was broken;
  • Bunma’s face had a stab wound. The wound was triangular in shape. The skull on the back of his head was broken. His left hip had a severe burn mark;
  • Somchai’s neck and shoulder bones were broken; and
  • Seang’s body had many bruises.

A witness reported that a police officer, whom he did not want to name, told him and another witness, “Please understand, we [Lom Kao District police officers] did not kill your father, it was police officers from Lom Sak District [Petchaboon Province].”

Bodies of the four men were sent to Yuparaj Hospital in Lom Kao District.  However, relatives of the victims did not receive the results of forensic examinations.  Only Bunma’s relatives requested Lom Kao District Office to issue a death certificate, which identified the cause of death as “gunshot.”

Sia-Jua had eight children younger than twelve years old.  Bunma had fifteen children (from two wives), the youngest of whom was a daughter eighteen months old.  Three of the families (excluding the village chief’s) were very poor.  They did not have their own land to farm, but used the land belonging to the Department of Public Welfare.  They had been told in early 2003 not to use that land anymore because the Department of Public Affairs would be taking it for reforestation projects. 

In spite of the injuries to the men’s bodies and the possibility of witnesses to torture and murder in broad daylight on a well-traveled road, to date there is no sign that any investigation has been conducted into these deaths.

Case study: The killing of Chakraphan Srisa-ard, nine years old

On February 23, 2003, nine year-old Chakraphan Srisa-ard died from bullet wounds after police fired at the car driven by his mother, who was fleeing a drug sting operation in which his father was arrested.

A plainclothes police team had met with Sataporn Srisa-ard, thirty-four, for a purported drug sale in front of the Manangkhasila Residence in Bangkok at around 9:00 p.m. When he delivered 6,000 amphetamine pills, the officers flashed their badges and arrested him.

Pornwipa Kerdrungruang, his wife, waiting in their Honda Accord with their son, saw the arrest and quickly moved from the front passenger seat to the driver seat and sped off, police reported.  According to eyewitnesses, several plainclothes men believed to be police chased after the Honda in a pickup truck.  One witness said that men in the pickup truck shouted at the driver to stop, but she failed to do so.  The men then fired shots at the car and hit it six times.  The car crashed 200 meters away onto the pavement in front of the Paris Theatre. The police reported that Pornwipa got out and fled, leaving behind a gun, B300,000 (U.S.$7,345) in cash and the body of her son, Chakraphan, who apparently died on the spot.

Two bullets hit Chakraphan in the left part of his torso. One of them hit his lung and heart and went through the right side of his body.

Three police officers from the Bang Chan police station were preliminarily charged with manslaughter.33  Thai law authorizes the use of force by police only for self-defense.  Although investigators found traces of gunpowder on the hands of the officers, the police revolvers submitted as evidence were found not to be the ones used to fire at the car.34 

The police authorities then took advantage of the narcotics aspect of the case to attempt to shield the police officers from prosecution.  Investigating police claimed a “third party” had been involved in the shooting and could have been responsible for the boy's death, floating the theory that a man on a motorcycle from the same drug ring had fired at the car and killed the boy.  They said that when the officers heard the gunfire, they threw themselves on the ground and only fired shots in the air to frighten the criminals.

Deputy Metropolitan Police Chief Major-General Jakthip quoted the officers as saying that the couple had been secretly accompanied by “bodyguards” who showed up after Sataporn was arrested.  “The policemen said they didn't fire at the car, and that the bullets were from the guards of the drug dealers,” Major-General Jakthip said.

Police Lieutenant-Colonel Pakorn Pawilai of the Nang Lerng station, which is in charge of investigating Chakraphan's death, also said that the three officers had insisted they never aimed at the car.  Contradicting the initial accounts, the officers said they had been trying to chase the suspect's car on foot.  “A man on a motorcycle was also chasing the getaway car and gunshots were fired,” Police Lieutenant-Colonel Pakorn quoted the three officers as saying.  “It was unclear if that was an attempt to help the suspects or to silence them. But when the officers heard the gunfire, they threw themselves to the ground and only fired shots in the air to frighten the criminals.”

Police Commission spokesman Major-General Pongsapat later defended the actions of the officers from Bang Chan police station, saying they followed procedure.  Implying that the police had in fact fired the fatal shots, he gave the boy's family B20,000 (U.S.$495) to help with funeral costs in an expression of sorrow and regret over the incident.  However, he reiterated the police’s commitment to the war on drugs, saying, “police will continue to take tough measures against drug dealers.”

Blacklisting of drug suspects without due process

The foundation of Thailand’s war on drugs was two kinds of lists prepared by government officials: “blacklists,” which included people who had been arrested or named in arrest warrants, and “watchlists,” which included those under investigation.  Observers noted that the process of preparing the lists was rushed and open to widespread abuse, potentially used by police and local authorities to settle old disputes.35  Blacklisted suspects had no mechanism by which to challenge their inclusion on a list.  Under a system of rewards and penalties—part of Prime Minister Thaksin’s widely publicized “CEO” (Chief Executive Officer) style of governance—local and provincial officials were required to meet set quotas in reducing the number of people on the blacklists by a deadline, either through arrest or forced drug treatment.

Interior Minister Wan threatened retaliation against local officials who did not produce results, driving home the point by citing the way a former king dealt with unresponsive officials.  “In our war on drugs, the district chiefs are the knights, and provincial governors are the commanders,” he said.  “If the knights see the enemies, but do not shoot them, they can be beheaded by their commanders.”36

Local officials appeared to use the blacklists to settle old scores.37  Once on the list, the only way off, according to one human rights activist, was to “buy your way off the list, surrender at a police station or end up with a bullet in your head.”  But even surrendering to the police offered no certainty.  Many who went to the police to surrender or clear their names were shot by unidentified gunmen on the way home.

Throughout the war on drugs, Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) was deluged with complaints of false arrest, improper inclusion in drug blacklists, and related violations of due process.  The NHRC received 123 complaints during the two-week period from February 20-March 7, 2003, compared to twelve complaints during the preceding seven weeks.38  The most common complaints included being named on a blacklist without any involvement in drug activity, death of a family member due to the anti-drug campaign, and false allegations of drug possession by police.39

Human Rights Commissioner Pradit Chareonthaitawee spoke out against the drug war, saying, “People are living in fear all over the kingdom.”  But when Pradit presented cases of human rights violations to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) in February 2003, Thaksin called his behavior “ugly” and “sickening” and questioned his authority to communicate with the United Nations.40  Pradit received threats of impeachment by a spokesman of the ruling Thai Rak Thai party as well as anonymous telephone calls on March 5 and 6 telling him to “stop speaking to the United Nations or die.”41

At the beginning of the drug war, the government insisted that the lists had been scrupulously prepared and cross-checked.  By late February 2003, however, even senior government officials began to question the accuracy of the government’s drug suspect lists.  On February 25, Police Chief General Sant Sarutanond stated that the lists were “poorly prepared and could have affected innocent people.”42  Interior Minister Wan later admitted that, “some names on the list don’t exist.  Some addresses are out of date, and some people whose names are there have never been involved with drugs.”43  The Interior Ministry ordered the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) to check the lists, but there is no evidence that the monitoring of the lists was taken seriously.  Killings continued against individuals whose names were on the lists but against whom there was no evidence of drug dealing.

Government investigation of human rights abuses

Throughout the drug war, government agencies charged with investigating extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses lacked either the independence or the capacity to carry out full and impartial investigations.  According to a March 3, 2003 fact sheet on the war on drugs prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Thai government on February 28, 2003, appointed two committees to monitor the implementation of its narcotics policy.  The first, chaired by the secretary-general of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board, Police Lieutenant General Chidchai Vanasathidya, was assigned to monitor police conduct during the drug war.  The second, chaired by Attorney General Wichian Wiriyaprasit, was responsible for protecting informants, witnesses, and those who turned themselves in to the authorities.  The fact sheet contained guidelines for investigating extrajudicial killings and stated that “in discharging their duties, law enforcement officials have been instructed to strictly observe the provision of the Criminal Code, which authorizes the use of lethal force only for self-defense.”44

By April 1, 2003, with over 1,000 people dead, the Royal Thai Police had not forwarded any reports to the Attorney General’s investigating committee.  The committee had requested that all reports be sent by the previous March 28.  It was only on April 28, by which time close to 2,000 people had been killed, that the police sent information to the committee.  The committee proceeded to establish ten subcommittees to investigate the deaths.  In November 2003, Amnesty International reported that “it appears that in most cases investigations have not been completed and that therefore no one has been found responsible for the killings or brought to justice.”45  Amnesty International was not able at that time to obtain specific information about the progress of investigations.

Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), established under article 199 of the 1997 Thai Constitution, has the power to investigate complaints of human rights violations and make recommendations based on its findings.  During the war on drugs, the NHRC’s small staff did not have the capacity to investigate each allegation it received relating to extrajudicial execution, police abuse, improper inclusion on a blacklist or watchlist, or other human rights violation.  However, the commission investigated hundreds of cases and, on November 25, 2003, produced a summary of problems related to the war on drugs and submitted it to the prime minister.

The summary underlined four problem areas of the government’s suppression policy related to the blacklisting of drug suspects, arrests, extrajudicial killings and asset confiscation.  In an understated tone, reflecting Prime Minister Thaksin’s attacks on the NHRC and other human rights defenders, the Commission said that the method used to draw up the blacklists had been problematic, as many people who had nothing to do with the illegal drug trade had appeared on the lists.  One commissioner told Human Rights Watch:

Most names are drawn from the results of community meetings, which offered an opportunity for officials with conflicts to enter the names of people unrelated to the drug trade.  Relatives and friends of those accused are also lumped into the same category.  And ethnic minorities were subjected to stereotyped beliefs that they were also involved in the drug trade.

The NHRC summary concluded that some people had been arrested simply because they were accused by others who were already in police custody and were forced to name names. A commission member told Human Rights Watch that there were cases in which evidence had been fabricated, and that “the government had no evidence backing the arrests of many people on the day drug-related killings took place.”  The member was particularly concerned about reported cases in which drugs had been planted on corpses following homicides.  “Police officers did not pay attention to the investigation and apprehension of the alleged killers,” the member added, “despite the fact that these are also serious crimes.”

The report further stated that on some occasions, there had been no proper investigation before the assets of suspects were confiscated. “Some of the assets were inherited or accumulated over decades,” said the commission member.  “The confiscations included items necessary to daily existence, such as refrigerators and telephones. It reaches such a point that it can be said that nothing was left to help those affected to continue their lives.”  The member concluded by stating that Thaksin’s policy had had a “corroding effect” on the judiciary system and urged that any future wars on drugs adhere to the due process of law and judicial system.

Violence and breaches of due process by Thai police

Even before the war on drugs, Thailand’s anti-drug laws provided a pretext for widespread abuses of civil rights of people suspected of drug use or trafficking.  According to numerous current and former drug users interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Thai police typically profiled drug users based on factors such as syringe markings on their arms or attendance at a methadone clinic, arrested them, and forced them to confess to drug-related crimes.  Tum N., twenty-four, told Human Rights Watch he had been injecting heroin since he was seventeen.  The first time he was stopped by the police was soon after the war on drugs began, when he and his girlfriend accidentally drove through a police checkpoint on his motorcycle.

My girlfriend told me I should go back, and when I did the police checked me and didn’t find anything.  They accused me of throwing my stuff away after passing the checkpoint.  They handcuffed me, took me to a bathroom inside a restaurant, and beat me.  They said, “Are you trying to be a wise guy, driving through our checkpoint?”  They punched me and kicked me in the face and head, using their elbows, fists and knees.46

Tum N. said the police proceeded to take him to an interrogation room, where they accused him of having stolen a motorcycle.  “When they couldn’t get anything out of me, they accused me of stealing my motorbike.  They checked the registration, and when they couldn’t pin anything on me, they let me go.” 

Human Rights Watch separately interviewed the girlfriend of Tum N., twenty-five-year-old Karn S, who corroborated Tum N.’s account.  “I could hear him being beaten,” she said.  “I heard the cops say, ‘Don’t fight back, just accept it.  If you have drugs, just hand it over.’  When he said he didn’t have any, they said, ‘Why did you throw them away?’”47  Karn S. said that when her boyfriend emerged from the bathroom, “[h]e came out with handcuffs behind his back, all beaten up.  I asked him, ‘Were you beaten?,’ and he said, ‘Yes, by three cops, after they handcuffed me.’” 

Karn S. added that while she and her boyfriend were in police custody, the police demanded they participate in a sting operation to capture their alleged drug dealers, a tactic described to Human Rights Watch by a number of drug users.  She described the police’s conduct as follows.

The police said, “You’re going to get busted for one thing or another today.”  I begged them not to throw us in jail, and they said, “In that case, you have to help us in a sting operation.”  So we brought the cops to a drug dealer we knew, but he wasn’t there.  I said, “We fulfilled our promise, will you let us go?”  At first they wouldn’t, but after a while, for some reason, they did.

Coercing drug users into participating in sting operations was one of a number of abusive tactics used by Thai police to effect drug trafficking arrests before and during the war on drugs.  Tai P., twenty-eight, said the police forced him to sign a false confession stating he was a drug dealer even though he denied this charge.  He said he had injected heroin for ten years before attempting to quit in March 2004.  On March 17, 2003, the police executed a search warrant on his home and found two vials of heroin and some syringes.  Instead of charging him with heroin possession, the police forced him to sign a confession stating that he had been caught trafficking methamphetamines.  “I know all too well the search warrant was produced to use me as a scapegoat during the campaign to suppress ya baa,” he said, adding:

The confession said I was dealing drugs, even though I was not caught doing that.  When I refused to sign, the police threatened to arrest every other member of my family.  They said, “Don’t you love your family?  You want to get your family into trouble?  Why don’t you take the blame on your own instead of dragging your family into this?”  So I confessed.48 

Tai P. told Human Rights Watch that the information on the search warrant was fraudulent, stating that he had been a ya baa dealer for ten years.  He said that the police confiscated his mobile phone and B20,000-30,000 (U.S.$614-$737), saying they would use it as evidence to prosecute him for drug trafficking.  “They never produced it in court,” he said.  “I think they just took it for their own use.”  Tai P. said he spent twenty-five days in pre-trial detention before being sentenced on a drug possession charge.

Jit P., twenty-seven, described a similar incident from September 2002, shortly after the Thai government declared drug suppression to be one of its major policies. 

I was riding a motorcycle with my boyfriend, and the police pulled us over.  He said, “Your time is up, you have to come with us”. . . . They took me to their car, drove me to the police station, and made me sign a blank piece of paper.  I spent time in jail, and afterwards they took me to court.  It was then I found out I’d been charged with possession.  The police presented evidence that I was a repeat offender, and I was sentenced to eight months in jail.  I never saw what was on the piece of paper.  Every time, I just sign a blank piece of paper.  I never know what charge I’ve gotten.49

In addition to coercing false confessions, Thai drug users said that police frequently planted drugs on people they knew to have a drug history.  Tum N., twenty-four, said: “I’ve never been arrested with possession of any drug.  The two arrests I had, the drugs were planted.”50  Human Rights Watch heard a description of such an arrest from “A” (his nickname), twenty-five, a former injection drug user who is now living with HIV/AIDS.

I didn’t have heroin on me, I only had a syringe . . . . There was nothing inside the syringe, but I was high [on drugs] when I got arrested.  The police couldn’t find any drugs on me, so he put some in my pocket and then took it out and said, “Does this belong to you?”  They could tell I was a drug user, so it was easy for them to pin charges on me.  The physical signs all said I was a junkie.51

“A” noted that his arrest did not occur during the war on drugs, by which time he had stopped using.  Other users said, however, that planting of drugs on suspected drug offenders was common during the drug war.  “It happens all the time,” said Kor D., twenty-six.  “I have nothing against the police, but I know for a fact they are looking for bribes.  Once I had nothing on me at all, and the cop just took something from his pocket and put it in mine.”52  Tai P., twenty-eight, told of a case in 2003 in which the police tested the urine of someone in his neighborhood but found no trace of narcotics.  “His urine tested negative, but the cop just put some drugs in his pocket and arrested him,” Tai P. said.  “He’s still fighting his case.”53

Drug users noted that police often abused their authority to test the urine of suspected drug users, sometimes making arrests even when urine tested negative.  “It looked like the police wanted to make arrests,” said Tai P. of the war on drugs.  “Sometimes, the police just pick up kids on the road, and even if they test negative, they just take their money and cell phone and threaten them with arrest.”  Tai P. said that merely associating with suspected drug users was enough to be caught in the police’s net.  “There is one kid in my neighborhood who hangs out with two others who do ya baa,” he said.  “When the police found drugs . . . they arrested all three of them.”

Several drug users noted that being in possession of drugs during a possession charge was the exception, not the rule.  “I was arrested three times . . . for possession of heroin,” said Petch D., twenty-five.  “The third time, I was actually in possession of heroin.”54  Karn S., twenty-five, made a similar observation.  “When we get caught, we never have any drugs—the police just see us and know we use drugs, so they threaten us with arrest.”

[1] R.S. Ehrlich, “Thailand’s drug war leaves bloody trail,” The Washington Times, February 21, 2003.

[2] K. Brilhart, “Thailand’s deadly war on drugs,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 29, 2003.

[3] G. Reid and G. Costigan, Revisiting ‘The Hidden Epidemic’ – a situation assessment of drug use in Asia in the context of HIV/AIDS (Australia: Centre for Harm Reduction at the Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health, January 2002), p. 208.

[4] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Regional Centre for East Asia and the Pacific, Amphetamine Type Stimulants in East Asia and the Pacific: Analysis of 2003 Regional ATS Questionnaire: Regional and National Overviews of ATS and Other Drug Trends and Related Data Collection Systems: Final Report (Bangkok: UNODC, April 2004), p. 80, table 50.

[5] Order of the Prime Minister’s Office No. 29/B.E. 2546 (2003), “A Fight to Overcome Drugs,” p. 2.

[6] M. Dabhoiwala, “A chronology of Thailand’s ‘war on drugs,’” Asian Legal Resource Centre, May 9, 2003.

[7] In a December 4, 2003 television and radio broadcast, King Bhumibol stated: “I have to say this because the Prime Minister announced victory yesterday . . . . I know the Prime Minster does not like warnings, because warnings can be irritating . . . . As for the criticism of the 2500 deaths . . . who will take responsibility . . . ?  The Prime Minister was denounced for waging war and causing 2500 deaths . . . . Most deaths were killings between drug producers and traffickers themselves, yet there may be a certain number which officials are responsible for.  Try asking the Police Chief to specify how many . . . . Then announce, so the [Thai] people will know, so foreigners will know . . . . ” Excerpt from the remarks of H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, December 4, 2003.

[8] According to a survey conducted by Suan Dusit College between March 29 and April 5, 2003, 75 percent of Thai people in all seventy-six provinces throughout the country fully supported Thaksin’s hard line stand on the drug war, and 12 percent were particularly satisfied that drug dealers had been killed by law enforcement officials.

[9] Cited in A. Spaeth, “Heading South,” TIMEasia, June 30, 2002, online: (retrieved June 9, 2004).

[10] M. Macan-Markar, “All Eyes on Thaksin’s Threat to Burmese Drug Producers,” Interpress Service, August 28, 2003.

[11] R.S. Ehrlich, “Thailand’s drug war leaves bloody trail.”

[12] Speech delivered by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Ratchapat Suandusit Hall, Bangkok, January 14, 2003, cited in Pasuk Phongpaichit, “Drug Policy in Thailand,” paper presented at the Lisbon Drug Symposium, October 24, 2003, p. 4.

[13] Cited in R.S. Ehrlich, “Thailand’s drug war leaves bloody trail.”

[14] “Death toll in Thailand’s drug war hits 2,275, say police,” Agence France-Presse, April 16, 2003; see also,, “2,274 dead in Thai drugs crackdown,” May 7, 2003.

[15] U.S. Department of State, Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, THAILAND: International Narcotics Control Strategy Report – 2003, March 2004, online: (retrieved April 8, 2004).

[16] “UN Rights Chief Seeks Inquiry,” Bangkok Post, February 12, 2003.

[17] “Death toll in Thai drugs war soars towards 600: ministry,” Agence France-Presse, February 18, 2003.  The Thai police had earlier reported that that the number of deaths in the first fifteen days of the crackdown was 319.  J. Aglionby, “Hundreds killed on crackdown on drug use in Thailand,” The Guardian (London), February 18, 2003.

[18] For example, an October 2003 letter from Thailand’s foreign ministry to the U.S. Secretary of State noted that the normal level of homicides was approximately 400 per month prior to the war on drugs, compared to an estimated 2,593 killings from February-April 2003 (more than 800 per month).  U.S. Department of State, THAILAND: International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.

[19] Amnesty International, “Thailand: Extrajudicial killing is not the way to suppress drug trafficking,” press release, February 20, 2003.

[20] O. Hutasing, “Pornthip raises suspicions,” Bangkok Post, February 19, 2003.

[21] See detailed case study, p. 18.

[22] “UN Expert on Extrajudicial Executions Expresses Concern over Recent Killings in Thailand,” United Nations press release, February 24, 2003.

[23] “UN envoy pleads: Stop killing spree,” Bangkok Post, February 26, 2003.

[24] Y. Tunyasiri and A. Ashayagachat, “PM shoots mouth off over UN query,” Bangkok Post, March 4, 2003.  Thaksin later said he had overreacted when making this comment.  “‘Not-my-father:’ Thaksin retracts UN jibe,” The Nation (Thailand), March 5, 2003.

[25] “Drug killings go on in Thailand despite government silence,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur, March 17, 2003.

[26] J. Aglionby, “Thai leader justifies 1,100 drug war deaths,” The Guardian (London), March 3, 2003.

[27] “Death toll in Thailand’s drug war hits 2,275, say police,” Agence France-Presse, April 16, 2003; see also,, “2,274 dead in Thai drugs crackdown,” May 7, 2003.

[28] M. Dabhoiwala, “A chronology of Thailand’s ‘war on drugs.’”

[29] Y. Tunyasiri and S. Wancharoen, “PM Declares Nation Now Out of Danger: People Have Their Sons, Daughters Back,” Bangkok Post, December 2, 2003.

[30] Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB), Ministry of Justice, Thailand, “‘War on drugs’ Concept and Strategy” (November 2003), p. 13.

[31] U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Thailand: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2003,” February 25, 2004.

[32] Y. Tunyasiri and W. Ngamkham, “Thaksin orders new round of suppression,” Bangkok Post, February 29, 2004.

[33] They were Sergeant Major Pipat Sang-in, Lance Corporal Anusorn Tansuwan and Corporal Panumas Chanacham.

[34] Several pieces of evidence were examined, including traces of gunpowder on the hands of the officers; the officers’ .38 caliber revolvers and another found in the car; bullets; and spent cartridges, including one .38 caliber cartridge found in the boy's body and two found in the car.  Scientific Crime Detection Division (SCDD) commander Police Major-General Chuan Worawanit concluded on March 7, 2003 that “the three bullets found in the car did not match the four guns turned in [by the officers] for detection.”  Police Major-General Chuan and National Police Commission spokesman Major-General Pongsapat Pongcharoen were asked why police had not turned in the bullet which was fired through the boy's body, and why there had been a delay in handing over the policemen’s guns to the SCDD.  Both were evasive, telling reporters to ask the deputy metropolitan police chief, Major-General Jakthip Kunchorn na Ayutthaya.  Major-General Jakthip said the results showed that either police had not fired at the car as they earlier stated, or the three police had used different guns than those handed in to the SCDD.  The car carried six bullet holes, and traces of 11 mm, 9 mm and .38 caliber bullets were found at the scene.

[35] Amnesty International, “Thailand: Grave Developments,” p. 4.

[36] R.S. Ehrlich, “Thailand’s drug war leaves bloody trail.”

[37] For example, on February 21, 2003, Law Society President Mr. Sak Korsaengrueng complained to the police chief of Samut Songkram Province that the name of the provincial chairman of the Law Society, Mr. Somchai Limsakul, was targeted on a blacklist.  Mr. Sak noted that local police in the province had been upset by Mr. Somchai’s work on behalf of the Law Society to provide legal assistance to people charged with drug-related offenses.

[38] Office of the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand, “Summary of complaints related to anti-drugs campaign received by the National Human Rights Commission in February 2003,” p. 1.

[39] See, e.g., “‘I was shocked my name was on the list,’ says businessman,” The Nation, March 5, 2003.

[40] Y. Tunyasiri, “Thaksin blasts comments from Pradit as ‘sickening,’” Bangkok Post, March 9, 2003.

[41] A. Kazmin, “Thai rights chief attacked over drug claims,” Financial Times, March 6, 2003; M. Dabhoiwala, “A chronology of Thailand’s ‘war on drugs.’”

[42] M. Dabhoiwala, “A chronology of Thailand’s ‘war on drugs.’”

[43] “Interior to review its blacklist,” The Nation (Thailand), March 28, 2003.

[44] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Fact sheet on the Royal Thai Government’s anti-narcotic drug policy,” March 3, 2003, para. 4.1.

[45] Amnesty International, “Thailand: Grave Developments,” p. 6.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview, Samut Prakhan, May 6, 2004.

[47] Human Rights Watch interview, Samut Prakhan, May 6, 2004.

[48] Human Rights Watch interview, Samut Prakhan, May 6, 2004.

[49] Human Rights Watch interview, Samut Prakhan, May 7, 2004.

[50] Human Rights Watch interview, Samut Prakhan, May 6, 2004.

[51] Human Rights Watch interview, Bangkok, May 7, 2004.

[52] Human Rights Watch interview, Samut Prakhan, May 6, 2004.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview, Samut Prakhan, May 6, 2004.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview, Samut Prakhan, May 7, 2004.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>July 2004