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
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,
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
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."
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
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
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
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'
Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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