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    Southeast Asia
     Oct 21, 2011

Southeast Asia's failing war on drugs
By Sebastian Strangio

PHNOM PENH - The communist government of Laos has traditionally taken a harsh stance towards drug use. Shortly after they seized power in late 1975, the communist authorities infamously rounded up hundreds of drug addicts, prostitutes, gamblers, "hippies", and juvenile delinquents, and imprisoned them on two islands in the Nam Ngum Reservoir north of the capital Vientiane.

In the socialist argot of the time, the island prisons - one for men and one for women - were termed "re-education centers for social evils" and were intended to rid the country of the liberal habits of the old United States-backed regime.

The Somsanga Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Vientiane - the country's largest and oldest drug center - was supposed to

have marked a change from this punitive approach. Established in 1996 by the Ministry of Public Security as a detention facility for drug users, the donor-supported center claims to have turned over a new leaf, billing itself as a "health-oriented facility" offering addicts vocational training and the latest in evidence-based drug treatment.

According to the website of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which has provided technical support to the center in the past, Somsanga aims to "provide a suitable basic setting for drug detoxification and rehabilitation and to implement vocational training activities".

But according to a new report by the United States-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), the reality inside Somsanga is closer to the island camps of old than the promises contained in the center's glossy brochure. HRW's 81-page report claims that "patients" at the center are held against their will in crowded, dirty cells.

They are subject to frequent beatings by "room captains" who have the power to punish them for attempted escapes or other misbehavior. Five of the 12 ex-detainees interviewed for the report said they had witnessed another inmate trying to commit suicide.

"Somsanga still functions as a detention center, although it lacks the basic protections prisons provide: due process, judicial oversight, and mechanisms for appeals and accountability," the report states.

HRW quotes one former detainee, named only as Sahm, who witnessed five "patients" being beaten for attempting to escape. "The room captains beat them until they were unconscious. Some were kicked, some [beaten] with a stick of wood," said Sahm. "The police told the room captains to punish them because the police would be held responsible for any successful escapes."

Of the 1,087 detainees at Somsanga as of mid-2011, HRW says it is likely many were not even drug users at all, and that the center is used to hold anyone considered by the state as socially undesirable: beggars, the homeless, street children and people with mental disabilities.

The rights group also lashed the center's international donors - which at various points have included the UNODC, the US Embassy and other foreign governments - for failing to notice the abuses that were taking place inside the center. Joe Amon, director of HRW's health and human rights division, said donors have "blindly accepted" the government's claim that the center is voluntary and "seem happy to claim that conditions have improved."

"Whether conditions have improved or not, the basic operating principle of Somsanga - routine, en masse detention without due process, denial of effective drug dependency treatment, and physical abuse - is no different from centers across the region," Amon said, calling for an independent investigation into the situation inside the center.

UNODC regional representative Gary Lewis said the agency was not aware of any abuses at Somsanga prior to the release of the HRW report last week, but was "very concerned" about the allegations. "The UN's position on the issue of compulsory centers is clear," he wrote in an e-mail. "The UN does not support the compulsory center approach for addressing illicit drug use in the society because the approach provides neither effective drug treatment nor rehabilitation."

Lewis said any investigation of the situation inside Somsanga would have to come from the UN's human-rights agency, but that the UNODC was ready "to work with the government of Lao PDR to pilot and scale up such evidence-based drug dependence treatment services."

'High' ambitions
Such centers are largely the norm across the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which aims to be "drug-free" by 2015. This is a high ambition: according to the UNODC's 2011 World Drug Report, Southeast Asia has recently seen "soaring production, trafficking and abuse" of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATSs), as well as a resurgence in opium poppy cultivation and heroin trafficking.

Much of the region's opiates and amphetamines originate in the famous Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet, although the report says ATS production also takes place in Malaysia and the Philippines. Most of the ATS production is consumed within the region, according to UNODC.

On the demand end of the equation, prison - or prison-like centers on Somsanga's model - are the standard approach to reducing the use of illicit drugs. In another report from September, HRW examined conditions inside Vietnam's "rehab archipelago", reporting that the centers were "little more than forced labor camps" for addicts.

In Cambodia, rights activists have criticized a new draft drug law that they say treats all drug users as addicts and allows authorities to forcibly commit them to state-run "social affairs" centers where abuse and mistreatment are rampant.

Observers say the widespread abuses in state-run rehab centers is just one symptom of how far the drug war has failed in Southeast Asia. According to the HRW report on Somsanga, the pressure on Lao officials to declare their villages "drug-free" by 2015 has motivated authorities and families to commit even casual drug users to Somsanga for "treatment."

"By 2015 ASEAN countries will still have drugs," said Damon Barrett, a senior human rights analyst at the United Kingdom-based Harm Reduction International. "And if current approaches continue they will have high rates of injection-driven HIV, skyrocketing prison populations, thousands in drug detention centers, and far too many deaths from overdose as well."

Amon also described ASEAN's "drug-free" aim as unrealistic, adding that dependency was "more effectively addressed through community-based health programs than by locking people up, beating them and subjecting them to abuse."

Even if incarcerations are scaled up to stem abuse, production of drugs in Southeast Asia is unlikely to stop or scale back. In recent years, international observers have applauded the reduction in opium production in the Golden Triangle, but the trade has been replaced by a flourishing trade in methamphetamines, a cheaper and less risky alternative to the seasonal opium crop.

Much of the production takes place in "special zones" in remote parts of Myanmar's Shan State. Under ceasefire agreements with the Myanmar government, armed ethnic groups such as the United Wa State Army have been given control over autonomous enclaves, from where they plow drug profits back into infrastructure, hotel and casino developments in what one analyst has termed "a sort of narco-development model".

In their book Merchants of Madness: The Methamphetamine Explosion in the Golden Triangle, Bertil Lintner and Michael Black argue that until a lasting political solution is reached in Myanmar's troubled periphery, the flow of drugs - most destined for consumption in Southeast Asia - is unlikely to end.

The picture isn't all grim, however. Small organizations across the region - from Indonesia to Cambodia - are pioneering health-based approaches to drug abuse and have achieved some successes. Yakita, established in Indonesia in 1999, now has 15 clinics across the archipelago that use detoxification, recovery, education and counseling to help drug users kick their habits.

But such programs often run up against entrenched government opposition, and unless practical, health-based measures are adopted more widely in the run up to ASEAN's 2015 "drug-free" deadline, the victims of the region's drug war will continue to mount. "Undermining human rights is one of the defining characteristics of drug control in country after country in Southeast Asia and worldwide," said Barrett. "Pick your human-rights abuse and the likelihood is it is happening somewhere in the name of drug control or a 'drug-free' society."

Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He can be reached at sebastian.strangio@gmail.com

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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