Thailand’s prison population has exploded since the Thaksin years. Source: Pixabay
Thailand’s repressive junta is beginning to admit that the kingdom’s 13-year hard-line narcotics policy has produced a crushing prison population but done little to deter drug use.
The admission has regional significance just as in the Philippines, which has some of Asean’s highest methamphetamine-use rates, there have been numerous police killings since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power last month.
As Thai prisons overflow with those convicted for often minor drug offences, the military authorities are have said openly that the populist policy dating back to around 2003 has failed to address consumption.
Thailand has around 40 per cent of the Asean’s prison population, although it has only 10 per cent of the total population, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says.
Thailand’s so-called “war on drugs” had caused the prison population to soar and was being rethought, said Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya, a senior member of the military junta that seized power in the 2014 coup.
“I want to de-classify methamphetamine but Thailand is not ready yet,” said Paiboon, meaning reduced jail terms for possession or selling drugs.
Never soft on crime, the admission of failure by the Thai junta points to the depth of the crisis.
Meanwhile, prisoners burned down two buildings during a six-hour riot last week that left three prisoners dead and several officers wounded in southern Thailand.
Nearly 100 prisoners in southern Pattani province set fire to the institution’s kitchens, according to the military authorities, and after the riot made 14 demands, including more family visits, the ability to receive food parcels and access to television news. The prison has around 1,800 inmates.
The Institute for Criminal Policy Research reported last year that Thailand, despite its relatively low number of citizens, had the world’s fourth-highest population of women prisoners, after the US, China and Russia. It said the Thai incarceration rate was the eighth highest in the world.
Thailand’s prison crisis is largely rooted in a simplistic campaign that was launched in 2003.
The then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched a multi-pronged suppression campaign that aimed to end “meth” use in three months. It palpably failed. He changed the punishment for drug addicts, issued arrest and drug seizure targets, rewarded officers for achieving targets, had suspected “dealers” killed with no legal process and ordered a “ruthless” enforcement.
In three months, Human Rights Watch said 2,275 people had been killed although Thaksin’s administration claimed the police were only responsible for around 50 of those deaths.
Anecdotally, many victims were identified to the police or death squads by jealous neighbours or business competitors who would acquire their assets after their murder. The officers would fulfil their targets and by duly rewarded.
The Narcotics Control Board said the policy was effective in reducing drug use, especially in schools. But after the 2006 coup that deposed Thaksin, former attorney general Kanit Na Nakhon chaired an inquiry and said around 1,400 of the 2500 killed had no apparent link to drugs.
Use of “meth” is rising in much of Asean and governments are struggling to respond despite harsh punishments, in keeping with the Thai approach.
Myanmar, the source of much of the narcotics flooding the region, is expected to see an explosion in domestic meth use. And Asean’s drug supplies, especially of meth, were at a record level, the UNODC reported.
Manufacturing and trading category 1 drugs, like heroin, Ecstasy and LSD, is punishable by death or life imprisonment in Thailand.
The prison of Klong Prem has almost 6,300 inmates serving terms of 15 years to life, with a colossal 64 per cent convicted of drug-related crimes.
“Some of the men, especially the foreign prisoners, are pretty big, so it’s a squeeze for them,” a guard told Reuters.
Paiboon said more prisons would be built, including 17 temporary jails for inmates who had served at least a third of their terms.
Amid all the state-funded brutality, a record number of Thais were using meth, known as “ya ba” or “crazy medicine”, according to the UN.
“The world has lost the war on drugs, not only Thailand,” said General Paiboon. “We have clear numbers that drug use has increased over the past three years. Another indicator is there are more prisoners.”
The numerous costs of the high incarceration rate are catastrophic for families.
“We know from meeting and interviewing prisoners, including female prisoners, in Thailand, that the impact is profoundly negative for families,” explained Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC’s regional chief. “The situation has approached a noticeable crisis point. The reality is that talk has not yet moved to action and the prison population is still growing.”
An ex-female prisoner, who did not want to be named because of the stigma associated with drug offences, said she was incarcerated for three years after being arrested with 20 meth pills.
“My boyfriend was the dealer. I was carrying the pills for him. My son doesn’t want anything to do with me now,” she said.
The number of drug convictions has almost doubled over the past decade, Thai Department of Corrections figures show.
“We need to change sentencing and make a distinction between small and big time dealers,” said Klong Prem prison governor Thawatchai Chaiywat. “Thailand thinks prisons are a panacea for all crimes, including drug crimes.”
The Thai corrections department figures said the current prison population exceeded 321,000, with around 70 per cent jailed on drugs offences.
Duterte’s policy of encouraging executions drug dealers and users is unlikely to result in a swollen prison population but he might look at the tattered legacy of another Asean populist leader’s drugs war.