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A violent 10-week-old state-sponsored "war on drugs" is rapidly undermining Thailand's long struggle to become one of Southeast Asia's leading democracies - and the civil rights of Thais. The United Nations and the United States should pressure Bangkok to end its shoot-to-kill policy.

Deviating sharply from Thailand's previous efforts to build the rule of law, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has called for law enforcement to be conducted on the basis of an "eye for an eye." Interior Minister Wan Muhamad Nor Matha put it bluntly in January. Referring to drug dealers, he said: "They will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace. Who cares? They are destroying our country."

Since the crackdown started Feb. 1, Thai police report that more than 2,270 alleged drug criminals have been killed. The government says 51 have been killed by police in self-defense and the rest in battles among dealers. More than 50,000 people allegedly involved in the drug trade have been arrested.

The use of dangerous drugs is certainly a serious and growing problem in Thailand. UN and Thai authorities cite a huge increase in use in methamphetamine stimulant tablets - which Thais call "yaa baa," or crazy pills - smuggled in from neighboring Burma. As many as 3.6 percent of Thai youth and 5 percent of all Thais now take methamphetamines.

Many in Thailand, including the revered constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, are worried by this trend and have called on the government to take action. But Thai authorities should do so in ways that do not compromise basic rights.

This is hardly the message being sent by Thai leaders. "In this war, drug dealers must die," Thaksin has said. "But we don't kill them. It's a matter of bad guys killing bad guys." Few in Thailand find his explanation credible.

At the behest of Thaksin's government, local authorities hurriedly drew up blacklists of suspected drug dealers. Bangkok then gave provincial governors and police chiefs short deadlines to clear names from the list. The interior minister 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: "The king had them all beheaded."

Local officials appear to be using the blacklists to settle old scores. Once on the list, the only way off, according to one rights activist, is 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 offers no certainty. Some who have come to the police to surrender or clear their names have been shot by unidentified gunmen on the way home. Human rights activists accuse the government of unleashing a "shoot to kill" policy.

While Thaksin campaigned for political office as a modernizer, his tactics represent a major step back to the dark days of military rule in Thailand. Pradit Chareonthaitawee, the head of Thailand's official human rights commission, received death threats after saying, "People are living in fear all over the kingdom."

Drug experts and the United Nations suggest that instead of setting a futile goal of ending all drug sales in three months, Thailand should concentrate on "supply reduction strategies." One such strategy would be to focus on its own military and police, many of whose members allegedly profit greatly from facilitating the smuggling chain from Burma.

The shoot-to-kill policy must end. Persons accused of crimes should be arrested with the least force necessary, as called for in the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. All recent killings should be investigated by an independent commission. To ensure credibility, Asma Jahangir, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, should be invited to investigate.

The United States provides anti-narcotics training to the Thai police and the United Nations has the regional headquarters of its drugs and crime office in Bangkok. Each risks having its reputation sullied by association with a bloody and violent campaign in the name of the war on drugs.

Both the United States and the UN should make it clear that they oppose the methods being used in this war. If the violence doesn't stop, each should consider withdrawing from Thailand.

Brad Adams is Executive Director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

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