When Thailand's prime minister launched a campaign Feb. 1 to eradicate drugs from his country within three months, skeptics predicted the effort would prove no more successful than his earlier pledges to eliminate pollution and untangle Bangkok's notorious traffic jams.
But within days, the seriousness of the initiative became brutally clear. Police reported at least 300 drug-related slayings over the first two weeks, and by March 1, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced that 1,100 people had been killed during the offensive.
Government officials say most of the killings have been the result of violence among rival drug gangs panicked by the crackdown. Police acknowledge responsibility for only about 30 of the deaths, saying these were largely self-defense shootings.
Human rights activists, however, suspect that many of the killings have been carried out by Thai security forces and allied gunmen as they try to meet Thaksin's quota for reducing the number of drug producers and dealers on a government list of suspects.
"According to our research, most of them are killed by the police, because they want to meet the target," said Somchai Homlaor, secretary general of Forum Asia, a human rights group. "They think if the drug dealers are brought to court, they will be released again. A better way to solve the drug problem is to kill them."
His group reported it has uncovered at least three cases in which drugs were planted on victims before their bodies were turned over to the coroner.
U.N. special human rights envoy Asma Jahangir recently added her "deep concern" to the mounting criticism, issuing a statement citing "allegations of excessive use of force resulting in extrajudicial executions."
Increasingly nervous about Thailand's international reputation, the Foreign Ministry called diplomats from more than 50 countries to a briefing Monday to make the government's case. "It's necessary for the government to take decisive action to deal with the drug problem," Foreign Ministry spokesman Sihasak Pheungketkaew said after the session. "We are not insensitive to the concerns of the international community, but we want the international community to see our side of the story."
Drug use has ravaged Thailand, where the government estimates 5 percent of the population uses methamphetamines produced in the jungles just over the border in Burma and known locally as "yaa baa" or crazy medicine. This makes Thailand the world's largest consumer of the drug, according to the United Nations' International Narcotics Control Board.
While vowing to continue the sweep, Sihasak said Foreign Ministry officials had reassured the diplomats that police were under strict instructions to abide by the law. "The campaign does not mean we will condone excessive use of force or weapons by the authorities," he said.
Admitting that police have made some mistakes in waging the anti-drug war, Thaksin has guaranteed that all killings will be investigated. He also announced he would establish two committees to monitor the police and protect informants and witnesses.
But he also has evinced continuing resentment of foreign criticism. He was quoted last month by the Nation newspaper in Bangkok as saying Thailand should "do away with the thinking of foreigners" about human rights.
Interior Minister Wan Muhamad Nor Matha, speaking to reporters on the eve of the crackdown, set the tone for police operations against suspected drug traffickers. "They will be put behind bars or even vanish without a trace. Who cares? They are destroying our country," he said.
Based on public opinion polls, most Thais agree. A survey conducted in the third week of February by the Suan Dusit Institute showed that more than 90 percent of respondents backed Thaksin's campaign. It remains unclear, however, whether this resounding support will weather continuing disclosures about excessive violence.
Thai media widely reported the death last month of a 9-year-old boy who was shot as police tried to arrest his parents, suspected drug dealers. He was gunned down in the back seat of a car driven by his mother as she fled the police. Though authorities initially blamed the shooting on unknown assailants, three police officers have been arrested in connection with the boy's death.
Other victims include a pregnant woman, a 1-year-old boy killed in a shooting that injured his mother, and a 75-year-old grandmother suspected of peddling methamphetamines, according to press reports. The government has not named the assailants in these cases.