Duterte’s War on Drugs: Learning from the Failure of Thailand and Colombia

Posted by cmfr | Posted in In Medias Res, Melinda Quintos de Jesus | Posted on 07-09-2016

By Melinda de Jesus

President Rodrigo Duterte is not the first to take to the path of violence with the goal of ending the plague of drugs.  Thailand’s highly controversial and equally popular Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who rose to power in 2001 also thought he could fight fire with fire.

Living in Thailand from 2005 to 2008, I watched the initial phase of the unravelling of Thaksin’s government. The Thais were a divided community, with groups taking to the streets, wearing different colors to protest or to support Thaksin. I heard Thai friends and colleagues in the press cite the egregious human rights violations in the course of the drug war among the reasons they could not support the leader. While the man’s populist policies won over a strong majority, Thaksin was ousted as military forces divided into factions.  The generals who had the numbers moved decisively and dramatically to force him out of power while he was traveling abroad in 2006.  He has since lived in exile.

This is not about Thai politics. The reference to the Thai experience is to demonstrate the futility of a policy based on killing drug users and small-time dealers/ pushers in fighting drugs.

The poor in Thailand are not as impoverished as ours. They have a smaller population. But even in their situation, eliminating the most vulnerable participants in the trade got the Thais nowhere.

When candidate Duterte campaigned to wipe out drugs, he clearly indicated that his method would be repressive, recalling for those familiar with the Thai experience the loss of lives. I was fearful.  Our police cannot claim of better records of efficiency than their Thai counterparts. Anyone who has done even the most marginal reporting on killings and other crimes, know the links that bind criminals to police collusion. With Duterte winning on the promise of his full support for the police if they happen to kill resisting suspects, one could only imagine the death toll that was sure to follow.

Let a Thai journalist say it: “Duterte should learn from Thai drug policy.”  This headlined a commentary (In a Nutshell)  published in the Bangkok Post recently (Friday, September 2).  Napporm Wong-Anan was in Manila for a media forum on other issues, but it was Duterte’s drug war that became the main subject of talk among the regional participants.

In three months, Thaksin’s campaign claimed 2,800 lives. Philippine police records show 2,927 dead  from June 30 to September 6. A review of Thai cases showed that rule-of-law procedures were ignored, that some victims were named by feuding neighbors, that there were many slain who had nothing to do with drug use. Some had problems with the police, their deaths classified as EJKs.

Like Duterte, Thaksin’s fight against drugs through killings was challenged by national and international communities.  Thaksin put the campaign to a halt, calling it a success. But Naporm recalled, noting that “The main outcome of Thaksin’s ‘war on drugs’was arbitrary killings.”

The column also described a forum in Thailand which reviewed the policy. It reported the admission of Police General Paiboon: “It has been wrong all these years. If, not why 70% of drug offenders remain in prison? Why does the problem persist despite thousands of deaths? And why do people still complain about drugs in their community?  They’re telling us there’s something wrong.”

From farther abroad, Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s leader, attending the UN general assembly special session on drugs last April, echoed the sentiment, “I know we must rethink our drugs war.” At the global summit, Colombia argued for a global consensus that would  “frame  policy on drugs with a context of human rights.” Unlike Duterte, he has thought long and hard about the global drug problem in which context Colombia has played a prominent role. The need to move from “repressive to more comprehensive measures” is point that makes sense to our situation.

Every nation can learn from the global experience. And it would be sheer arrogance to think we can do better where others failed. The Thais after all have shown us up in various aspects of governance and in the growing of their economy, among other matters.  Some lessons may be universal as drugs cross borders. We cannot afford to dismiss the wisdom gained in Colombia.

Actually, Philippine legislation dealing with dangerous drugs has evolved since the seventies to broaden the orientation of policy, reflecting the wisdom of inter-departmental cooperation, and engaging schools, family and other sectors so the problem can be approached from its various aspects. Drug dependency and its use is not a simple matter of criminality and requires an integrated front, incorporating various forces, insuring responses at various levels. There is much to do for everyone. And those who wish to trust one strategy proposed the government is failing their own obligation.

The police definitely have a major role to play. Their operations should focus on dismantling the manufacturing sites of shabu and those running the networks of distribution. But to treat drugs as a matter of police action alone is to dehumanize the issue, tear it away from the social as well as the political contexts which have allowed drug trade to proliferate.

The crisis of drugs is more critical in some areas, a social and public health problem that calls urgently for a diversity of responses. To leave it only for police resolution is to be out of touch with the reality of the threat. Let us learn from the Thais and the Colombians in recognizing the limits of a killing strategy.

Let us also remind ourselves that lives once lost can never be recovered.