In Duterte’s footsteps, Hun Sen launches a drug war

Cambodia's new war on drugs aims to blunt a spike in addiction and trafficking, but critics see a publicity stunt ahead of crucial provincial elections

Phnom Penh, February 9, 2017 3:38 PM (UTC+8)
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during a press conference on September 1, 2016. His government has launched a war on drugs campaign some fear could devolve into violence. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks during a press conference on September 1, 2016. His government has launched a war on drugs campaign some fear could devolve into violence. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Cambodia’s newly launched war on drugs is in full swing, with nearly 3,000 people arrested in the campaign’s first month of crime-busting. Authorities claim they have confiscated over 9kg of illegal drugs in busts on dealers and users, with more than half the haul being crystal methamphetamine, one of the country’s most prevalent and abused narcotics.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government announced the campaign in December shortly after a state visit by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has made global waves through his violent execution of an anti-drugs drive that has seen more than 7,000 deaths.

Cambodian officials have said their campaign was launched in response to a nearly 30% rise in the number of documented drug addicts last year, according to official data.

Recent reports have given officials cause for concern. A United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report issued in February 2016 said Cambodia was a growing transportation hub for the trafficking of heroin and methamphetamine produced in the Golden Triangle – the shared border area of Myanmar, Laos and northern Thailand – before being shipping elsewhere in Asia. Smugglers take advantage of routes used by human traffickers and crime groups that send illicitly cut wood out of Cambodia, the report said.

Government-aligned businesspeople have been accused of complicity in the trade. In 2013, Tan Seng Hak, a business tycoon and former advisor to Senate President Chea Sim, was sentenced to eight years in prison on drug trafficking charges.

A year earlier, Hun Sen’s nephew, Hun To, was targeted by an Australian Crime Commission inquiry on drug trafficking and money laundering involving a syndicate that allegedly imported annually more than US$1 billion worth of illegal drugs into Australia from 2002 to 2004, according to reports. Hun To, who was never charged or convicted, denied the allegations, reports said.

Drug trafficking groups known to be active in Cambodia are often reportedly controlled by Chinese or West African nationals. As early as 2012, the UNODC reported that Cambodia was also emerging as a popular transit route for cocaine smugglers sending their product into Thailand or further north into China, Hong Kong and South Korea.

Latin American drug cartels, including the notorious Sinaloa of Mexico, are also known to be expanding into Southeast Asian markets, often doing deals with the already established Chinese and West African groups, experts say.

Cambodia’s domestic narcotics market is dominated by methamphetamine and heroin. “For years, we’ve been pointing out to countries that [methamphetamine] is rising,” Jeremy Douglas, UNODC’s regional representative, told local media last year. He said Cambodia’s large youth demographic (one-third of the population are below the age of 30), a growing youth culture and rising disposable incomes are all fueling drug problems.

A Cambodian military police official stands guard near a burning pile of drugs during a destruction ceremony to mark the UN's "International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking" in Phnom Penh on June 26, 2016. Cambodian authorities burned nearly 2 tons of seized drugs during the event. / AFP PHOTO / TANG CHHIN SOTHY
A Cambodian military police official guards a burning pile of drugs at a ceremony to mark the UN’s International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking in Phnom Penh on June 26, 2016. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Early arrests in the campaign have made splashy headlines. On January 11, the son of Thai Noreak Sathya – who is the Secretary of State in the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts – was arrested in Battambang city for possession of illegal drugs and pill-making equipment.

Days earlier, a number of soldiers and police officers were arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking. The military police also has said it would begin testing its officers for drug use.

The campaign and its show of tough governance will have popular resonance on an issue that increasingly concerns many Cambodians.

Analysts note that the end of the drug war in six months coincides with the run-up to pivotal commune elections scheduled for June. It could also serve as a distraction from politically motivated crackdowns on dissent and the possible state-induced dissolution of the largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party.

“When in doubt, go for the low-hanging fruit: get tough on crime,” Sophal Ear, Associate Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College, Los Angeles, told Asia Times.

There is already skepticism in some quarters that the campaign will hit the mark. “What I don’t see is a systematic effort in breaking the entrenched arrangement that created all of these problems,” said Ou Virak, head of the Phnom Penh-based Future Forum think tank. He says to succeed the campaign must also address widespread poverty, porous borders, and treatment for mental health and drug addiction.

Only in its second month, campaign weaknesses are already apparent. Of the 1,440 drug users arrested in January, 452 were released, 170 taken to court and 818 sent to rehabilitation centers for mandatory treatment. The centers were already contentious before the campaign began.

In December, non-governmental organizations warned that falling HIV/AIDs rates had caused a sharp drop in funding for the centers and that many were already in financial crisis before hundreds of new drug inmates arrived.

“They rely completely on sweating out drugs [and] exercise regimes,” David Harding, an independent consultant and expert on drug abuse programs, told the Cambodia Daily this month. “If they have a large influx of people in their centers, they’re simply not going to be able to do anything beyond detaining them.”

The prison system, meanwhile, is also stretched to breaking point. Nouth Savna, spokesman and deputy director general for the Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Prisons, said the campaign will have a “negative impact” on “already crowded” prisons. Prey Sar, one of the kingdom’s largest detention centers, is currently two and half times over its capacity of 1,800 people, according to local media reports.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) speaks to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (L) during a signing ceremony at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on December 14, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / TANG CHHIN SOTHY
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (right) speaks to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Phnom Penh on December 14, 2016. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

With more than 1,000 people awaiting trial since the arrests began last month, Cambodia’s notoriously slow-moving court system will also likely struggle with the surge in cases. It is not unusual for criminal suspects to serve a year or more in pre-trial detention, a problem that will put more pressure on the prison system as the campaign unfolds.

“The effort to tackle the perceived drug problem is very similar to efforts on illegal logging and others … in that they are desperate measures to appear that [the government is] doing something,” Ou Virak said. “Just like other previous efforts, I think it will have short-term results, but will have little long-term impact.”

As pressure mounts on the justice system, concerns are also rising over how long the government will persist using strictly legal means. So far there have been no reported deaths related to the campaign’s enforcement.

But if the incipient drug war was indeed inspired in part by Duterte’s visit to Phnom Penh in December, the future use of extrajudicial means is not entirely out of the question in a country well-accustomed to state-sponsored violence.

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