The Killing Season

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Eight-year-old Jay Unthong's mother was the first casualty in Thailand's war on drugs. She died just after midnight on Feb. 1, moments after the launch of a three-month government campaign to rid the country of narcotics. Jay's parents were small-time dealers in their village of Ban Rai, in western Ratchaburi province. His mother, Yupin, was reportedly on a police blacklist. Her husband, Boonchuay, spent 18 months in jail for possession of amphetamine pills, known in Thai as ya ba, or crazy medicine. On Jan. 31, the family spent the evening playing fairground games at a local temple. As they clambered onto their motorcycle to head home—Jay perched in front of his father, his mother on the back—they had no reason to fear this new campaign against drugs. Relatives say both of the parents had been clean since Boonchuay's release from jail three months earlier.

Barely 200 meters from the Buddhist temple, two black-garbed men in ski masks pulled up alongside on another motorcycle. The one riding pillion shot Jay's mother dead. Boonchuay tried to speed away, but the gunman kept firing until Boonchuay's motorcycle careened onto the pavement. Bleeding on the road, he shouted at his son to run. The boy scrambled over a fence. As he cowered in the darkness, he saw the gunman put a bullet in his father's head.

Jay has barely spoken since. "He's torn up inside," says Phanom, his uncle. Tough measures are needed to battle drugs, Phanom agrees. "But killing people in the streets is just too cruel."

After four weeks, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's war on drugs has Thailand fully mobilized. Police have made 13,232 arrests, seized nearly 10 million pills and accepted the surrender of 36,277 suspected drug pushers. Across the country, dealers, users and, sometimes, innocents are being gunned down, either by underworld associates, neighborhood enemies or, as human-rights groups allege, by cops taking extralegal measures. Since Jay's parents were slain, 1,138 more people have been killed—an average of almost 41 a day.

Thailand does indeed have a crippling drug habit. The country currently reigns as the world's largest consumer of methamphetamines and is a major smuggling route for heroin out of the Golden Triangle. Stung by criticism that he has been soft on Burma, where most of the narcotics are produced, Thaksin has pledged no lenience for those supplying drugs to Thailand's 3 million users. Police insist that the bodies piling up are bad guys killed by other bad guys—specifically, drug lords silencing potential informers. The Thai term for such a murder is ka tat torn, or killing to cut the link.

Why, then, have only a tiny proportion of these murders resulted in any arrests? Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunan, a deputy medical examiner, says that in more than half the cases she's seen it has been evident that drugs have been planted on the victims after their deaths—they are found jammed in pockets at unnatural angles. And, she says, "Gangsters don't do that." In other cases, says Somchai Homlaor, secretary-general of Forum Asia, a human-rights group, bullets have been removed from corpses so that they can't be traced.

The victims have included a woman who was eight months pregnant, a 75-year-old grandmother and a 9-year-old boy shot in the center of Bangkok. All three of those victims were unarmed. The National Human Rights Commission has received dozens of complaints from people who say their enemies have erroneously told police they are dealers. Others have apparently taken direct action against petty rivals or estranged business partners. "It's a license to kill for personal vendettas or disputes over illegal businesses," says Sunai Phasuk of Forum Asia.

Amnesty International was quick to sound alarm bells. Asma Jahangir, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions, has expressed "deep concern" over the slaughter. Thaksin defends his campaign, and no wonder: a recent national poll taken by the respected Rajabaht Institute registered a 90% approval rating for the drug war. The average Thai family, apparently, wants the scum off the streets, even if they depart in body bags. (The Prime Minister did say last week that he would appoint a panel to monitor the drug-suppression drive.)

But even supporters of the campaign express some unease. Somboon Gunpasri sells fruit along the road where Jay's parents were murdered. "They were such small fish," he sighs. Still, Somboon says, he's not worried because he doesn't use drugs and has no enemies. "If you do," he warns, "you better be afraid."