Contemporary Slavery: Connections to Thailand’s War on Drugs

Slavery and other exploitive systems do not exist in a social vacuum. Rather, they are deeply connected with other institutions in society, materialising in ways that intensify existing social disparities. In this post, David Mayeda continues his series on contemporary slavery, based on an August trip that examined the issue in Thailand. Specifically, this post discusses the Thai government’s 2003 war on drugs and its influences on minority group members.

rice patties in Thailand
Laboring in the rice patties - one of the few alternatives to excessive labor exploitation in northern Thailand.

As noted in this series’ first post, the two social groups most severely impacted by Thailand’s policies surrounding statehood are (1) an ethnically diverse range of rural hill tribe Thai, and (2) Burmese migrants, many of whom are refugees. Given these groups’ exclusion from formal citizenry rights and in turn from mainstreamed education and health care systems, they are all the more vulnerable to being exploited as labor, even ensnared in slave-based settings. However, worker exploitation is not the only way in which these groups are systemically mistreated. Broad-based governmental policies directed towards other social issues often have unintended deleterious consequences. Given the extreme power imbalances existing in Thailand, it is unsurprising that minority groups feel the brunt of these wayward policies.

In the 1970s and 80s, the United States and United Nations funded efforts leading to the widespread eradication of opium in Thailand and other countries. As is the common pattern in society, when governmental forces eliminate the production and distribution of one drug without altering the root causes of demand, another drug simply replaces the old one. Thus, the basic drug trafficking system stays in place, only with a different product permeating the market, which is what happened in Thailand. While opium production, distribution, and use still occurs in and around Thailand, between 1993 and 2001, various forms of methamphetamine replaced opium, becoming the more popular drug across Thailand (Wong & Wongtongson, 2006, p. 131).

David Mayeda (right) at a community-based organization in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

In 2003, in response to the trafficking and use of methamphetamine, the Thai government initiated a series of highly punitive measures. These measures included the “opportunity” for drug users and dealers to voluntarily enroll in short-term treatment facilities (essentially detoxification centers) or boot camps run by the Thai military. However, if drug users and dealers did not volunteer, they would be forced into compulsory treatment or face arrest. As stated by Vongchak and colleagues (2005), “By law, all known drug users and dealers who had not reported themselves to government authorities by [21 April 2003] were placed on lists that were highly publicised throughout local communities and given to local law enforcement officials” (p. 116).

Within the first 4 months of this campaign in northern Thailand, 533 murders transpired, of which at least 29 were drug dealers shot by police. The remaining 504 murders were allegedly committed by higher-level drug traffickers who were preventing lower-level dealers and users from exposing them to the police; in addition to this, some residents simply went missing. Some argue law enforcement engaged in extensive human rights violations which also resulted in widespread fear among substance users who would rather hide from police than enter rehabilitation centers (most of which showed poor evaluation results with regard to substance use relapse; Vongchak et al. 2005, p. 116). See video, below:

Notably, Thailand’s 2003 war on drugs reflected American drug policies that began roughly a decade earlier in what criminologists call “New Right Realism” – conservative and highly punitive policy approaches to crime. In essence, government further empowers law enforcement by granting police greater leeway to make arrests, while official punishments for crimes (in this case drug crimes) are likewise intensified (e.g., longer sentences).

When our group met with social workers in the Chiang Mai area of northern Thailand, they corroborated the above research findings. Social workers stated that prior to 2003, they could more easily offer detoxification, counselling, and vocational training services for large groups of hill tribe Thai and Burmese who were hoping to phase out drug addiction. Now, the government’s aggressive and violent war on drugs has made individuals in these communities too scared to join any group-based services. Instead, case-by-case intervention takes place on a substantially smaller scale.

Moreover, drug traffickers continue to prey on the most vulnerable, often targeting hill tribe Thai and Burmese mothers to become addicted. Once in an addicted state, mothers are less able to make rational decisions that would otherwise help to protect their children. Children from these minority groups are then coerced into selling pornography on the street, working in begging rings, or are trafficked to other parts of the country. Meanwhile, the more powerful drug and human traffickers typically evade state enforcement.

While a government’s punitive war on drugs may make for snazzy headlines and yield political leverage, such efforts often do more harm than good to society’s most disadvantaged, and do nothing to alter the grave levels of social inequality that serve as a foundation for widespread substance use and labour exploitation.

Dig Deeper:

  1. How does a lack of stable work contribute to a social group’s tendency to engage in crime?
  2. When substance users are stigmatized by society and blamed for their own addicted state, how are broader institutions (e.g., government, education, health care) alleviated from responsibility?
  3. What role should the state play in preventing drug trafficking and substance use? How might this role differ or be similar in different countries?
  4. What role should the international community play in decreasing social disparities in developing countries, like Thailand?

All photos provided by author.


Vongchak, T., Kawichai, S., Sherman, S., Celentano, D. D., Sirisanthana, T., Latkin, C., Wiboonnatakul, K., Srirak, N., Jittiwutikarn, J., & Aramrattana, A. (2005). The influence of Thailand’s 2003 ‘war on drugs’ policy on self-reported drug use among injection drug users in Chiang Mai, Thailand. International Journal of Drug Policy, 16, 115-121.

Wong, T., & Wongtongson, T. (2006). Root Causes of Illicit Drug and Alcohol Problems in Minority Communities in Northern Thailand, and the Shan State of Myanmar.