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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Government hopes to extend controversial drug war

Anti-drug police officials torch a pile of narcotics during a destruction ceremony to mark the UN’s International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking yesterday.
Anti-drug police officials torch a pile of narcotics during a destruction ceremony to mark the UN’s International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking yesterday. Pha Lina

Government hopes to extend controversial drug war

National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) President Ke Kim Yan announced his intention to extend Cambodia’s anti-drug campaign yesterday, nearly six months and more than 8,000 arrests since the controversial crackdown began.

Speaking at an event recognising the United Nations’ International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, Kim Yan promised an audience of students, teachers, police officers, officials and court prosecutors that the Cambodian government would continue to focus on “strengthening the antidrug [campaign] and the community safety”.

Pledging to improve treatment and rehabilitation services for drug users, Kim Yan also emphasised the responsibility of ordinary citizens, especially parents and educators, in preventing drug abuse.

The event concluded with the torching of 126 kilograms of confiscated narcotics.

NACD Secretary-General Meas Vyrith confirmed yesterday via message the NACD’s wish to continue the anti-drug campaign for another six months, while noting that any extension would require the prime minister’s“steering committee”, which will meet in early July, though a date has not been set.

Deputy National Police Commissioner Mok Chito, meanwhile, said authorities are “surely going to continue” the campaign.

Local NGOs responded to news of the proposed extension with concern that the second phase would favour arrests over actual rehabilitation for drug users. “We are very sceptical that the majority of those arrested by the authorities are drug traffickers or dealers,” said Duch Piseth, of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “If it’s just a small crime with drug users selling drugs, the government should provide chances for rehabilitation.”

Naly Pilorge of rights group Licadho echoed Piseth’s calls for fairness, calling for the government to focus on rehabilitation over arrest and on working with medical institutions, social workers and civil society organisations, among others.

Anti-drug police officials destroy glass bottles of drugs to burn during a destruction ceremony to mark the UN's International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking yesterday,
Anti-drug police officials destroy glass bottles of drugs to burn during a destruction ceremony to mark the UN's International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking yesterday, Pha Lina

Despite concerns from rights organisations and outreach providers about how anti-drug efforts are implemented, a recently leaked survey commissioned by the ruling party identified addressing drugs and crime as a priority among citizens. Among 2,000 residents polled before the elections, security and drug issues ranked as the top issues of concern that “the government should be doing more about”.

For Boeung Trabek High School Principal Pheng Sovannra, who attended the event, Kim Yan’s speech was encouraging. “We have a committee to monitor on the students, like those who are largely absent from the school,” said Sovannra, referencing an NACD and Ministry of Education initiative last March to subject truant students to drug tests.

In sweeping up alleged drug users and traffickers throughout the country, the campaign has put a burden on the prison system, which has led those arrested for drugs to share overcrowded cells with violent criminals, said Maggie Eno, director of the Sihanoukville-based child protection NGO M’Lop Tapang.

“From our perspective, for them to continue is not good news,” Eno said.

“The prisons are overcrowded . . . [There] are people who have been arrested for sexual violence staying in the same prison as young boys.”

Sou Souchenda, a manager at HIV-prevention organisation Khana, said her organisation met with Meas Vyrith last week to address concerns that drug users suffering from HIV and drug withdrawal symptoms were not receiving adequate medical and rehabilitation treatment in prisons or other rehabilitation and detention facilities.

Last month, a recovering heroin addict with HIV named Thhan Dang died shortly after being released from custody, having been unable to access methadone and antiretroviral therapy during his incarceration at the Prey Speu detention centre in Phnom Penh.

According to Souchenda, the NACD secretary-general expressed a desire to work together.

“He said, ‘It’s easy,’” she recalled. “‘The Ministry of Health should give medicine in the rehabilitation centre.’”

The Ministry of Health could not be reached for comment.

A previous version of this article stated that Thhan Dang died in custody. He in fact died shortly after his release from custody. The Post apologises for the error.
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