ASEAN’s new reality: does the life of a drug user really mean less?

Photo: Labib Ittihadul/CC BY 2.0

ASEAN countries are getting tough on drugs but as attitudes in Indonesia and the Philippines harden, Laos is playing catch-up regarding public opinion. Officials across the region are learning from each other; stemming the traffic in narcotics takes more than just laws.

By Oliver Ward

The countries of the ASEAN region are talking, and acting, tough on drugs in a year that has seen Philippine streets awash with the blood of dealers.  The leaders of the bloc had agreed on a region-wide deadline of 2015 to make the zone drug-free.

Some have taken that more literally than others, but punishment for drug offences remains some of the strictest in the world. Over half of ASEAN nations can pass a sentence of death on convicted traffickers. The idea at the heart of this severity is that criminality stems from the drug trade. So if you solve the region’s drug problems, crime as a whole will be significantly reduced. Or will it?

All hail the Punisher?

President Duterte was elected on the promise of filling “all the fish in Manila Bay” with the bodies of criminals. He has not disappointed. Around 2,400 suspected drug dealers were killed in his first two months in office and the murders show no signs of letting up. This extra-judicial government policy does not match the national law which does not offer the death penalty. That does not seem to have been a barrier to the new President’s plan to clean up the streets by force.

In fact, the idea of reforming drug law is something of a social taboo in the Philippines. People don’t want to accommodate alternative viewpoints on drug treatment, and there is no sympathy for either drug users or dealers. While this means these people are subject to cold-blooded killings, the figures demonstrate that this public intolerance is having an impact. In 2004 there were 6.7 million drug users in the country, the latest estimates from 2012 show this number could be as low as 1.3 million and almost certainly drastically falling.

Exporting the war on drugs

Looking to other points in the ASEAN region, Indonesia´s anti-narcotics chief, Budi Waseso, publicly announced that he would like to replicate Duterte´s model in Indonesia. His forces have begun stockpiling heavy weaponry and sniffer dogs to emulate the Philippines’ success, as well as launching a recruitment campaign for additional police personnel to tackle the problem head.

However, unlike the Philippines, Indonesia already has harsh legal penalties for drug traffickers. Under laws passed in 1997, it is a crime for parents who fail to report a drug addicted child to the police. People found using drugs can, and regularly do, face execution. Today rhetoric in the media in Indonesia has begun portraying the lives of drug users and dealers in the same way as their Philippine counterparts. Waseso himself has called the life of a drug dealer “meaningless” and questioned how such lives could be respected.

By making comments such as this, Indonesian forces are setting out to ignite the same kind of public disgust and aberration which has led to the publicly accepted murder of drug pushers seen in the Philippines.  Strict laws alone are not enough to tackle the problem. It requires a change in public perception.

Leaving behind Laos

Meanwhile, in Laos, a lack of action by the government has let the drug trade expand. Once upon a time drug use in the region had been mostly eradicated but legal inefficiency and complacency has led to the unbridled return of opium and methamphetamine. Legal institutions are work with limited efficiency across the country and are largely ineffective against traffickers who seem to operate with near impunity.

Unlike in the Philippines and Indonesia where media rhetoric has turned public attitudes against drug trafficking, in Laos drug trafficking is becoming a way of life among the young. Drug use is high, and the mixture of caffeine and methamphetamine known as yaba remains widely used. However, Laos does maintain the death penalty for drug offences, although it rarely applies it. That said, seizures and arrests of illegal supplies are common.

But the reality is that despite the arrests made by the National Commission for Drug Control, for each arrest, another trafficker and dealer springs up for each facing charges. The prisons are full of offenders, but corruption, official complicity and insufficient policing limit the success of the drug war. With five borders and 3,000 miles of scarcely populated countryside to police, the government drug enforcement agencies are unable to cope with the extent of the problem.

A strategy for success?

In 2013 the Laotian government put together a drug control strategy document. This aimed to improve civic awareness and community mobilisation, along with more traditional law enforcement investment. However, the strategy required a budget of $72 million, raised from international donors. In the end, the scheme managed to raise only $20 million, limiting its implementation and effectiveness.

Until the Laos government embarks on a campaign to radically change public attitudes towards drugs, any success in combatting the country’s drug problem will be entirely superficial. And as the Indonesian government learnt throughout the late nineties and early 2000s, tough laws alone are not enough.

On the other hand, the Philippines model shows that laws become redundant when the public does not tolerate drug use of any kind. Duterte’s war has been fought with only strong rhetoric and governmental encouragement, the future of the war on drugs is in the minds of the people, not the legal power of the state.