There’s much to be said for small victories. Despite only receiving sporadic media coverage, the news that Malaysia is likely to soon scrap the death penalty for drug-related offences ought to be heralded as a great step forward not just for Kuala Lumpur, but also for Southeast Asia’s oscillating drug policy.
Last month, Azalina Othman Said, a minister in the prime minister’s department, said the cabinet has unanimously agreed to amend the colonial-era Dangerous Drugs Act so that the mandatory death penalty would now not apply to drug traffickers, Reuters reported. It will go to a parliamentary vote within months and is expected to be passed. The minister added, in the same announcement, that 651 Malaysians had been killed by the state since 1992, most for drug offences.
Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu, executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia, was quoted as saying while it was a “welcome move, it must only be considered a first step towards total abolition.” This, one assumes, means the abolition of the death penalty. Indeed, there is a long way to go, not only for Malaysia, but for the region more generally. I wrote a two lengthy articles on capital punishment in this column, one about Indonesia in 2016 (See: “The Cogs of Indonesia’s Death Machine”) and one on Vietnam last year (See: “Beware Vietnam’s Death Machine”). For anyone who wants to know my thoughts on the death penalty, I suggest reading those articles.
This article, however, concerns drug policy. Southeast Asia remains parochial when it comes to a governmental response to drugs, a misfortune for users and non-users alike. It is been abundantly reported that drug use is rising across much of the region. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime started to notice an increase in 2012, working of a report by the International Narcotics Control Board. It claimed this was exacerbated by “shortage of qualified health-care professionals and limited drug treatment programs greatly restrict drug abuse prevention and treatment programs in the region.”
No doubt, it was also due to shifting drug production in the region. The manufacture of botanically-produced drugs, namely heroin, has been constrained in recent decades, according to analysts. But the proliferation of synthetic, methamphetamine-related drugs is growing, both in production and use. Certainly, compared to the eradication of poppy fields the termination of pop-up meth factories is immeasurably more difficult.
One response has been President Rodrigo Duterte’s very real “war on drugs” in the Philippines, a focus of international news and human rights campaigners. Today, more than 13,000 people are thought to have been killed by the police or vigilantes since last year. By comparison, in his book, Policing America’s Empire, the historian Alfred W. McCoy estimates that 3,257 were killed by the police or military during Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship, between 1975 and 1985. (Even if the real number is double or triple McCoy’s estimates, it still pales in comparison to what is happening in the Philippines today.)
This leaves one to question whether it’s more tragic that Duterte’s massacre will ultimately fail to do anything to reduce drug-use or production, or that most Pinoys reportedly support his policy. Whichever way, there’s blood on the ballot. To make matters worse, Duterte is now trying to reinstate the death penalty for drug offences, after capital punishment was abolished for all criminal offences in 2006.
As I’ve said before, Duterte’s war on drugs has its precedent in the bloody scenes orchestrated by Thailand’s former-prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. In 2003, he oversaw the deaths of 2,800 people in just three months as part of an anti-methamphetamine crackdown. Mostly, the perpetrators were police and vigilantes, like in the Philippines today, and the victims mostly poor users, also like in the Philippines. I mention this because Duterte and Thaksin are linked together by their populism, as a recent Economist article interestingly explored. Still, the differences bear noting too: Thaksin did at least introduce national health care while Duterte has yet to make good on his pro-poor reform pledges.
Populists, as might be expected, are the least likely to support drug decriminalization or treatment-centered policy. These, unfortunately, tend to be automatic vote-losing positions to take in most countries, not just those in Southeast Asia, and few politicians relish losing elections. It is then both surprising and, yet, unsurprising, that the region’s anti-democratic military leaders have been the most progressive when it comes to drug reform.
Elements of Thailand’s military junta have spoken openly about the need to go from punitive positions to a treatment-centered approach. “The world has lost the war on drugs, not only Thailand,” Minister of Justice Paiboon Koomchaya said last year. He also told Reuters that he wanted to “declassify” methamphetamine from a category-1 substance but noted that “Thailand is not ready yet.”
The Transnational Institute (TNI), a think-tank based in Amsterdam, reported last month that Myanmar could soon lead the way in a treatment-focused approach to drugs in Southeast Asia. It quoted Police Colonel Myint Aung, head of the International Department of the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control, who said last year that the government might try legislative changes that will “make [drug use] a health issue, rather than a criminal one.” Importantly, a draft bill was accepted in the country’s military-controlled upper house in August that could “eliminate prison penalties for drug use,” as the TNI wrote. In effect, this would decriminalize drug use – or, at least, lean heavily in that direction.
While there are claims that Southeast Asia is not yet ready for a major recalibration on drug-policy – or the Southeast Asian public more specifically – it could be argued that some of the nations are at exactly the right place to begin decriminalization efforts. Duterte and thugs might be busy killing mainly poor users and low-level dealers, but the police in Thailand and Laos have recently arrested some of the highest-profile traffickers in the region.
A case in point is the fact that Xaysana Keopimpha, a Laotian national and so-called “ASEAN Drug Lord”, who is thought run one of the largest drug operations stretching from Myanmar to Malaysia, was arrested in Bangkok in January after a five-year investigation with help from the Lao authorities. Importantly, Xaysana was thought to have close connections with former Lao leaders, including the family of former Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong. Some took his arrest to mean that the new Lao administration, under Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, is trying to rid the government of dirty connections. Lao authorities have also arrested other major drug kingpins, including Sisouk Dauheuang, an alleged associate of Xaysana.
As many drug policy advocates say, a treatment-centered focus on the ground, which means decriminalizing drug-use and petty dealing, as well as relaxing laws on the “mules” who traffic the goods either by force or for a small payment, allows the authorities to focus their efforts on those higher up the chain. Paiboon was correct: The world has lost the war on drugs. The question, however, is how long the hawks will continue waging it until they too realize this. Hopefully, Duterte’s quagmire will be a lesson to others of how not to respond.