Laos’ Murky War on Drugs
Image Credit: Flickr / Prince Roy

Laos’ Murky War on Drugs


Today’s Laos has a communist government that institutes free market reforms and advertises itself as a haven for backpacking tourists. It recently opened its own stock market. For many Americans, especially, Laos still evokes images of the ‘secret war’ fought on the sidelines of the Vietnam war. But even those familiar with modern Laos may not know much about another secret war, this time on the sidelines of the international war on drugs. In a strange realignment of forces, the United States is very much involved, this time on the same side as the government party it once fought against. 

The government of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic says it intends to make the country ‘drug free’ by 2015, part of a regional effort by Southeast Asian countries supported by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Laos takes its ‘war on drugs’ commitment particularly seriously. The government-controlled media avidly track the progress of villages to become ‘drug-free.’ Village militia members detain drug users, while relatives are encouraged to report on family members who use drugs. 
As is true elsewhere in the region, those identified as drug users are locked up in the name of ‘treatment.’ Over the past year, Human Rights Watch has investigated a drug treatment centre in Vientiane called Somsanga. International donors depict Somsanga as a ‘health-oriented’ facility. The truth, we found, is quite different.
Since at least 2002, the international donors have supported the centre by constructing or refurbishing buildings, training centre staff, and providing some vocational training. UNODC has overseen much of this support, with financial backing primarily from the US government. A handful of other embassies in Vientiane and external organizations have also been involved. 
Our investigation found that most of those detained in Somsanga are locked in cells inside barbed wire compounds. They may be confined for three months, but some stay longer than a year. They spend the majority of the day in their cells, closely watched by police and guards to prevent escape attempts. It’s an abusive place: those who do try to escape may be brutally beaten, while some detainees resort to suicide. 
There’s no clear legal basis for holding people in Somsanga. Former detainees who talked to Human Rights Watch explained that they were sent to the centre without a formal legal hearing or trial, and without ever having seen a lawyer or judge. They said that they were unaware of any means to review or appeal the decision to detain them. Once inside Somsanga, they were not free to leave. 
People don’t have to be dependent on drugs to be locked up. Some who use drugs infrequently are also there, though they have no dependence problem that might require ‘treatment.’ Beggars, homeless people, street children and those with mental disabilities are also swept away into Somsanga, especially before national holidays and international events. 
Even today, much of what actually happens inside the Lao People’s Democratic Republic remains a secret. The government completely controls local media and forbids public criticism. The government doesn’t allow international human rights organizations to conduct research or monitor human rights.
What happens in Somsanga itself also remains a secret, in part because of its international supporters. Human Rights Watch wrote to Somsanga’s donors in July asking about the nature and extent of their support. Some donors—including the US Department of State’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) and the US Embassy in Vientiane—still haven’t replied.   
Donors who did reply —including UNODC— said they were not aware of any reports of human rights violations in Somsanga. While some abuses, such as beatings, can be hidden behind the walls, others, such as arbitrary detention, are out in the open. The Lao government media even published a national telephone hotline for the public to report beggars before the 2009 Southeast Asian games in Vientiane. The announcement explained that those picked up would be put in Somsanga.
The United Nations is committed to fighting poverty and upholding human rights across the globe. But in supporting Somsanga, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime is instead acquiescing to violations of human rights and supporting government campaigns that mistreat the poorest of the poor.
The so-called global war on drugs continues to rage around the world, with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people victimized, effectively ‘collateral damage.’ Countries often contend that health is at the centre of their drug policy, even when the mainstay of treatment is locking drug users behind bars. 
In Laos, a secret war, funded by outsiders, promotes a goal as ideological as anti-communism. In the name of making the country ‘drug free’ by 2015, the government is sweeping people off the streets with little attention to its obligations to ensure due process or to fulfill the right to health. Instead of providing funding and looking the other way as these abuses occur, donors should demand that Somsanga be shut down, and replaced with effective, evidence-based voluntary drug treatment programmes, based in the community.
Joe Amon is director of the Health and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. The HRW report on Somsanga can be read here.
September 14, 2013 at 21:34

Locking up drug users is not the 'communist way', and it is not the Buddhist way either. It is the dumb way because it doesn't work.

What is happening is in fact the capitalist way. Lao people have always used drugs and they have always produced their own drugs. Now cannabis and opium are being replaced by beer and tobacco - commercial products imported from China. 

This is all part of bringing Laos into the financial economy. Most Lao people have always been self-sufficient. Now eveybody has to get a job, make money to pay for electricity, for transport, for beer. The Lao government is acting as the enforcer for the new captialist way.

October 15, 2011 at 08:27

Yeah, it’s crazy but what can they do? There is no money in that country, man. It’s a good thing they not put them in jail, but that’s because they can not afford it. I have been running the streets of the Viantiane drugscene quite much, and it was never any big issues about the police, because they simply can’t afford to lock up everyone envolved in drugs. You can buy pure heroin, yaba, weed or opium off the 80 year old local store owner in the streets of Vientiane. Every single Tuk-Tuk gotat least 10 grams opium for sale, and that’s just the capital. What about the jungle, in the boarders to Burma and with the Hilltribes… It is a truly immpossible task for the Laos Police and Army who have lower budgets then the “Jungle Trekking Companies” or the Boarder Police on the Laos-Thai Boarders…

October 14, 2011 at 21:09

@ CTlao: Laos good job in dealing with drug users in Somsanga:
- no legal detention
- insufficient food and water supply for prisoners
- huge mental pressure on prisoners
- physical treatment like animals
- insufficient health care
–> suicide and pain
–> human right violations

October 13, 2011 at 21:22

The US government launched its War on Drugs over 40 years ago. It has been a total failure, with user numbers increasing steadily worldwide, despite the millions of dollars injected into both the US and foreign ‘Wars’.

As long as the drug use to which this article refers remains illegal, there is big money to be made by wholesalers and street dealers. Locking up users will not make one scrap of difference. The dealers will simply find new customers to buy their wares.

But, if governments legalised the now illegal drugs (some of which are less harmful than many prescription drugs), and controlled the supply to users, the bottom would fall out of the illegal drug trade. Think about it.

And CTlao, locking up ANYONE without a trial is a violation of both human rights and the rule of law, regardless of the prevailing political system.

Gavin R. Putland
October 13, 2011 at 09:25

If foreign drug producers and domestic distributors are to be put out of business, domestic law enforcement must be concentrated on RETAIL SALES. But present legislation backing the “war on drugs” criminalizes mere possession. Worse, it purports to reverse the onus of proof in drug-possession trials. That reversal is incompatible with the rule of law and is therefore unconstitutional in ALL jurisdictions. More: .

October 13, 2011 at 03:03

A war is never good. Especially when its about drugs. People should should be free to use drugs and should not be criminated for it

October 12, 2011 at 21:16

The government of Laos has done a good job in dealing with the drug users.Those drug users are indesirable in the society thus they are good to be kept in the center for traitment.I would urge the human right watch to keep their mouth shut. I must encourage the western governments who failed to cope with this problem to learn from Laos. Some time the communist way of doing is more effective in dealing with the drug problem.People has no right to use drug. There is no human right violation for keeping the drug users in the center.

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