Bang heads, take stats, tell lies

Is the government's war on drugs a success? No, it's not. You might colour it a successful PR campaign, but not much else. Banging heads and taking stats, making front page news, is nothing more than the time-honoured tradition of putting up a good face. The lords of illusion are at work and everyone else eats it up.

Truth has many colours. In reading the news you get the version of truth endorsed by the news source, which isn't necessarily the truth. It might not be an outright lie, but colourful twists and tweaks cannot be discounted.

Then there are the stats, which, of course, are subject to the interpretation of the person presenting them, which brings us back to the news source.

Reading this column space is not so dissimilar, the version of truth here my own, complete with my personal baggage of prejudice and bias.

Since Sept 11 of last year, when the Yingluck Shinawatra government launched its war on drugs, about 340,000 drug cases have been prosecuted, nearly 8% more than during the same period the year before. More than 330,000 suspects have been arrested, a 14% increase from last year. Some 65.5 million methamphetamine pills have been seized in total, a 26% increase.

The hero is the man in charge of the war on drugs, Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung. Now when Mr Chalerm is the most accomplished member of the government, you know something isn't right in the neighbourhood.

Numbers don't lie; it's true that the authorities have been arresting and confiscating more - but while numbers don't lie, people tend to exaggerate and misrepresent. Calling the war on drugs a success is a gross misrepresentation of the truth.

Sometimes the truth is told most frankly in fiction. Take the HBO series The Wire. It has taught us much about institutional dysfunction and the great lie that is the war on drugs.

''Bang heads and take stats'' - that's the mantra.

When the Baltimore police department needs to boost its failing image, the commissioner declares a war on drugs and sends his minions out to bang heads and take stats.

When the mayor is on a re-election campaign and needs to rouse the populace, he declares war on drugs and orders the police department to bang heads and take stats.

Whenever any calamity befalls any powerful government or police officer, the best way to repair a damaged image is to declare a war on drugs, with the only strategy in mind being bang heads and take stats.

Bang heads and take stats is simple. Just roll up to ghetto corners, bang heads by rounding up the low level street dealers and take stats by confiscating the drugs. Then off to the big press conference, flashing lights and rolling cameras.

Line up the suspects and pile up the confiscated drugs. Throw out the numbers of however many were arrested and however much was confiscated. The media goes ''ooh'' and ''aah''in primetime news and front page stories, and then the public also get to go ''ooh'' and ''aah''. The next day it's business as usual on the corners.

Putting up a good face; it's not just a Thai thing - it's a human thing.

But the truth of the matter is if you confiscate 300,000 pills, there will still be three million more coming in. Bang 20 heads and 40 more are ready to take their places. The supply and labour are endless, not just because the demand is endless, but because no one who matters is ever actually identified, let alone arrested.

Follow the drug trail in fiction or in real life and eventually you will get to the money trail. At the end of the trail, there's always somebody powerful, important and with an official title involved. The politics of drugs is simply too messy.

So when some maverick, hard-drinking, womanising Baltimore cop - that's you, Jimmy McNulty, you mick - actually tries to follow the money trail to powerful politicians, his superior bangs his head and busts him down to river patrol duty.

Bang heads and take stats, the media and public eat it up, because lies are more easily digestible than truth. In the words of Omar Little, ''It's all in the game, yo.''

So line up the black kids from the ghettos of Baltimore or the slum punks of Thailand and pile up the confiscated drugs. We see the images on the front pages of Thai dailies just about every other day - smiling high-ranking policemen in full uniform posing majestically for the cameras, low level street punks hang their heads in shame, confiscated drugs piled on the table, - high-five, pat on the back, a job well done, old boy.

This is all about face.

The next day, it's business as usual again, an endless cycle of playing cops and bad guys - and at times the line between them can be quite thin, with due respect to the thousands of good and honest cops out there.

But who are the drug kingpins? Where are the cartels? Thailand is a centre of the infamous Golden Triangle drug trafficking trade, yet are we to believe the only powerful people involved are renegade Karen generals northwest of the border?

It's no secret that some of those sitting in parliament or wearing some sort of uniform have mafia ties or are themselves mafia kingpins. Many got their start that way. But to single one out as a drug kingpin would be irresponsible, as I do not have any evidence to back it up. However, it wouldn't be unprecedented, given the historic facts. Just consider this.

In his book Lords of the Rim, Sterling Seagrave alleged the late General Phin Choonhavan was a major drug kingpin.

Here was a man instrumental in Thai politics, a part of the 1932 coup and one of those who helped install Field Marshall Plaek Phibunsongkhram as prime minister. He was commander of the northern army, with Chiang Mai and the Thai sector of the Golden Triangle as his enclave.

''Chiang Mai is Thailand's G-spot, the centre of all gratification in guns, drugs, girls, teak, gems and jade. Whoever controls Chiang Mai as governor or as chief of the northern command, controls the cookie jar,'' writes Seagrave.

''Opium proceeds provided General Phin with limitless resources that were not subject to government oversight.''

All this was possible not only because of his ties to the government, according to Seagrave, but also because he had strong connections in the Thai-Chinese elite business community and the Teochew (the predominant ethnic Chinese group in Thailand) mafia.

When you trace the money trail, all sorts of people are implicated.

Then there's the late deputy director-general of police Phao Sriyanonda. He obtained the post after a military coup in 1947. In his book, Asian Godfathers, Joe Studwell alleged that he too was a drug baron.

''Phao used CIA-supplied military hardware to establish a police air force and maritime and armoured units that, in the course of the 1950s, became the biggest opium-smuggling syndicate in the country, while Thailand itself became the centre of global heroin trade.''

I can list some famous family names along the money trail, but then too many major companies would pull their advertisements from the Bangkok Post Sunday, so this column wouldn't make it to print anyway. Therefore, my dear readers, you might wish to buy those books for yourself.

Again, I'm not saying anyone in parliament or in uniform at the present time is involved in the drug trade. I have no proof of it. But there are precedents, and who among us would be in shocked disbelief if it were shown to be true?

One thing is for certain, banging heads and taking stats is not a war on drugs.

When the drug and money trails start and end with low-level street punks, at best it's a skirmish. But even that is being optimistic.

The truth? This is simply a PR campaign to put up a good face - a smoke-screen; nothing less, nothing more.

So smoke 'em if you got 'em.


Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at voranaiv@bangkokpost.co.th.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Voranai Vanijaka
Position: Political and Social Commentator