The War on Drugs in Southeast Asia

While most of the world’s attention has been focused on the carnage of the Philippine Drug War, which under President Rodrigo Duterte has resulted in an estimated 13,000 deaths from anti-narcotics operations and extrajudicial killings since June 2016, Duterte’s extreme solution to the country’s drug problem may only be the most conspicuous and controversial in a region with a history of draconian drug laws and anti-drug campaigns.

Media reports and human rights monitors have pointed to a worrying surge in the killing and jailing of suspected drug dealers and users in at least two Southeast Asian nations over the past year.

Jakarta-based non-profit LBH Masyarakat estimates that the number of extrajudicial killings in Indonesia jumped from 17 in 2016 to nearly 100 last year (official figures put it at 79), in response to what President Joko Widodo, echoing Duterte, has declared to be a “narcotics emergency” facing the country. Thousands more have been incarcerated in ever-crowded prisons as a result.

A similar story is taking place in Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen’s six-month narcotics crackdown following a cross-border request for help by Duterte led to more than 8,000 arbitrary arrests in 2017.

Some observers fear that these increased hardline tactics, coming on the heels of the violent repression in the Philippines, may have been enabled by Duterte’s bloody drug war, creating a more permissive atmosphere for extreme and repressive anti-drug measures within the region.

“The contagion of extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests is indeed extremely concerning,” says Ruth Dreifuss, Chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. “Such actions undermine the law and the credibility of those who support it and enforce it, and result in non-cohesive societies and weakened communities.”

A history of harshness

While it may be easy to think of neighbouring nations as simply taking a leaf out of Duterte’s strongman playbook, Southeast Asia has in fact a long history of being tough on drug use.

The most salient regional precedent to the Philippine repression is Thailand’s failed war on drugs under former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose promises upon taking office in 2001 included, like Duterte, a commitment to prioritising a crackdown on drug trafficking and use. Premised on an inflammatory rhetoric that demonised drug offenders as “[dangers] to social and national security”, the widely popular campaign in 2003 led to grievous human rights abuses including extrajudicial executions (some 2,800 in the first three months), the blacklisting of drug suspects without due process, and arbitrary arrests by the police. It ultimately helped create the largest prison population in Southeast Asia, approximately 70% of whom are drug offenders. In the years that followed, authorities repeatedly threatened a resumption of the war on drugs, even as the prison and justice systems were stretched to breaking point.

In Singapore, a staunch adopter of a zero-tolerance approach to drugs, death penalty abolitionists counted four drug-related executions in 2017, up from two the year before and three in 2015. K Shanmugam, Singapore’s Minister for both Law and Home Affairs, has dismissed calls by activists and campaigners to decriminalise drugs as “reckless, irresponsible. It’s a cop-out and it’s a step backward.”

Warnings emblazoned across arrival cards for visitors to Singapore.

Apart from Cambodia, Timor-Leste, and the Philippines, the other countries within Southeast Asia all retain the death penalty for drug offences, making a quarter of only about 32 states and territories in the world to do so. Harsh mandatory jail sentences have historically been handed out in Myanmar and Thailand, while strict border checks are also routine across the region.

While the war on drugs has been strongly criticised by global observers and human rights advocates, it remains heavily popular in Southeast Asia

“This is a region with perhaps the harshest drug policies in the world, even before the Philippines started its war on drugs, seen partly in the fact that most of the handful of countries that still execute people for drug offences are ASEAN countries,” says Gloria Lai, regional director for the International Drug Policy Consortium.

Member countries regularly commit to cooperate on working towards a drug-free region. For example, Thai and Laotian authorities have been working together to close in on major drug traffickers and kingpins in the region. A five-year joint investigation and operation led to arrests of some of the highest profile drug lords in Bangkok and Laos last year.

Still, the rise in extrajudicial killings is a worrying trend that could bring greater violence across the region. While the war on drugs has been strongly criticised by global observers and human rights advocates, it remains heavily popular in Southeast Asia.

Valeriano “Bobit” Avila, a columnist at the Philippine Star in Cebu and a prominent advocate of a forceful drug policy, argues that the scale of the problem, alongside the power of the criminal networks that control the trade in illegal drugs, necessitates the use of extreme tactics by the government.

“As far as the use of force is concerned, I believe that this is necessary, for the simple reason that those involved in illegal drugs protect themselves with arms and often fight the police to escape detention,” says Avila. “Drugs is a global scourge [that] needs to be fought tooth and nail… even if the human rights of drug pushers or drug lords are compromised in the process.”

Singapore’s Shanmugam stresses the deterrent effect of harsh drug laws, including imposing capital punishment for trafficking: “You have to focus on reducing supply. The death penalty comes within the context of trying to reduce the supply by making it clear to traffickers that if they get caught, they will face the death penalty…. so the stakes are made very clear upfront. And that I think has a very powerful influence on those who seek to traffic drugs into Singapore,” he said during a speech at the Asia Pacific Forum Against Drugs in 2017.

Despite such assertions, two studies analysing drug statistics from Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia found that retaining the death penalty for drug offences has little to no deterrent effect on trafficking. A punitive approach, including arrest and imprisonment, does not seem to deter use, concurs Lai, citing the rising rates of drug use in countries with notably harsh drug laws such as Singapore and Cambodia. Indeed, according to statistics released by the Singaporean government, there was almost a doubling in the number of drug abusers in the city-state from 2003 to 2016.

A matter of efficacy

It’s difficult to determine the effectiveness of the region’s escalating war on drugs, in terms of reducing drug use and availability. Data on drug use is often spotty and, as in the case in the Philippines, can sometimes be manipulated or misstated. Doubts have also been raised about the figures cited by the Indonesian government to justify the national ramping up of the drug war, which critics say had been arrived at using questionable methods.

What is clear is that the use of harsh, police-heavy tactics in countries such as Columbia and Mexico over the past few decades have done little to deal effectively with drug crime. Conversely, the success of a public health approach adopted in countries such as Portugal is inspiring other countries to follow suit.

Rather than squander valuable resources on ineffective punitive measures based on ever-larger national police and more weapons, executions and jails, there is increasing recognition of a need to prioritise more humane, health-based approaches, including the establishment of rehabilitation centres and other treatment facilities to help addicts recover and reintegrate into society.

Thai officials have admitted to the failure of the country’s war on drugs, citing increased drug use and a growing prison population overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders. Gideon Lasco, a Philippines-based medical anthropologist and vocal critic of Duterte’s drug war, believes that if Southeast Asia wants to truly tackle drug trafficking and abuse, it needs to heed these lessons.

“Duterte’s tactics are not working. Draconian measures have never worked against drugs in this country or elsewhere in the world,” says Lasco. “What we need is a comprehensive approach to the drug problem that includes, most importantly, addressing the structural issues that lead to drug use in the first place.”

“High numbers of arrests or people in prison do not mean that the supply of or demand for drugs has fallen”

There is an urgent need for more evidence-based analyses of drug policies in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes an egregious event, such as the killing of unarmed 17-year-old Kian Loyd delos Santos in the Philippines, to spark public outrage and prompt calls for more public accountability and transparency. More than anything else, the tragedy has alerted the public of the dangers involved when the police are allowed to operate with impunity. It’s a discussion that Lai welcomes.

“Evaluations of the effectiveness of police and military actions, and discussions on how to measure that effectiveness need to be further underlined,” says Lai. “High numbers of arrests or people in prison do not mean that the supply of or demand for drugs has fallen, or that the health or safety of communities has improved—which should be some of the key objectives of drug policies.”

Populism and drugs

What lies behind the region’s hardline stance on drugs is often the old populist rhetoric of a government that’s tough on crime and security, while presenting an image of defending national sovereignty, often by shunning international accountability for domestic policies.

Despite the enormous death toll to date, a poll by a Manila think-tank found that 7 to 8 out of 10 of Filipinos continue to support Duterte’s drug war. Before the strongman populism of Duterte came along, Thaksin had pledged to stamp out the drug epidemic with a massively popular war on drugs in Thailand in 2003, even though more than half of the over 2,500 killed were ultimately found to have no links to the drugs trade.

Cambodia’s crackdown last year was launched in the run-up to the country’s commune elections, in which the ruling party eventually won 70% of the seats. The punitive campaign arguably helps to pave the way for other democratic and political repressions leading up to the national elections slated to be held later this year. Like his predecessor, Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith won widespread support when he announced an anti-drug and anti-corruption campaign when he took office in 2016.

In Indonesia, the sanctioned increase in drug-related extrajudicial killings over the past year, with three rounds of high-profile drug-related executions in 2015 and 2016, may be as much about political efficacy as it is about a renewed focus on eradicating drugs. The country’s war on drugs has garnered widespread public support, despite being regarded by some as the government cashing in on populist, nationalistic fervour and a convenient tool for bolstering support among Islamic conservatives that have a growing political influence in the Muslim-majority country, as President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo prepares for a tough re-election campaign in 2019.

Observers worry that Jokowi is taking a tough stance on drug offences in Indonesia to appeal to voters ahead of a tough re-election campaign. Credit:

Ricky Gunawan, a human rights lawyer and director of LBH Masyarakat, worries that the Indonesian government has chosen to move forward with extrajudicial killings rather than executions in order to avoid negative international attention, while still maintaining the cover of taking decisive action on drugs in order to appeal to the electorate. “Jokowi is now consolidating power, building allies, and using, as much as possible, public issues that could be exploited as populist platforms, and one of these is drugs,” he says.

It’s a phenomenon that Lasco sees as taking place across the region, one in which facts and evidence matter little. “Populism is key here,” he says. “Regardless of the actual efficacy of these policies, they have political efficacy, because they convey a sense of ‘doing something’ and ‘being tough’ to the electorate.”

Shifting frameworks

Recent shifts in drug policy approaches in the region may offer some cause for hope, although some of these appear to be minimal amendments made in the face of mounting international pressure for human rights reform, rather than any real, substantive changes in approach.

Both Singapore and Malaysia have shifted away from the mandatory death penalty for drug offences, with the latter abolishing it completely while the former amended the law to give judges limited discretion in sentencing where specific criteria are met. Vietnam removed the death penalty for drug possession and appropriation in 2016.

In comparison, Myanmar and Thailand are leading the way with meaningful, health-based reforms. Myanmar is moving towards decriminalisation and a rehabilitation and treatment approach following a recent drug policy review, which culminated in a proposal to replace lengthy prison sentences for minor offences with community service. Similarly, Thailand, once notoriously harsh on drugs, is looking to reform its drug laws. Aside from legal reforms, Thai officials have identified the need for a more integrated approach to the complex drug problem, which would include social measures to help alleviate the impact of drug use and dependence on communities.

“Debates about drug policy approaches in the past year have been driven partly by an acknowledgment that harsh penalties for low level, non-violent offenses, especially drug use and possession for personal use, do not work in solving drug-related problems, and instead result in negative consequences, such as massively overcrowded prisons,” says Lai.

Duterte’s bloody drug war in the Philippines has resulted in about 13,000 deaths. Credit: Carlo Gabuco for Human Rights Watch

The region faces an urgent need for re-evaluation. For now, the situation remains dangerously fraught. Jails are over-congested and on the verge of collapse in the Philippines, and as the death toll of the war continues to rise amid mounting international denunciation of widespread human rights violations, Duterte has also been pushing for the reinstatement of the death penalty and lowering of the age for criminal liability for drug offences.

In Indonesia, there are fears that a new narcotics law being proposed would potentially give the Badan Narkotika Nasional, the national anti-narcotics agency responsible for several of 2017’s extrajudicial killings, wider powers, with a larger budget to purchase more weapons, build special prisons for drug criminals, and conduct more widespread wiretapping—measures that could put at risk the civil liberties of all Indonesians.

Until citizens across the region start taking a deeper look into the full impact of the war on drugs on society, such populist-driven, anti-drug rhetoric is unlikely to change, and more lives will continue to be lost.

Disclaimer: New Naratif’s Editor-in-Chief, Kirsten Han, campaigns against the death penalty in Singapore, which is most often used against those convicted of drug trafficking. Although Kirsten edited the first draft of this piece, it was handed over to another editor for the final edit.

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