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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Illegal drugs go up in smoke

Illegal drugs go up in smoke

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Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema prods the burning remains of an estimated US$6 million worth of seized narcotics ceremoniously burnt at Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium on June 26. The ceremony was one of many held nationwide - of which the largest was in Stung Treng and presided over by Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng - to mark the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.

Amassive stockpile of confiscated illegal drugs was torched on June 26 in Phnom Penh's

Olympic Stadium in one of many ceremonies held around the country by the government

to mark the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.

The largest ceremony was held in Stung Treng town - the northeastern jungle province

widely regarded as the frontline of Cambodia's war against drugs.

"Stung Treng has become the number one place for the trafficking of all kinds

of drugs," said Sophally, personal assistant to Lour Ramin, secretary-general

of the National Authority for Combating Drugs. "We decided to hold an event

in Stung Treng to make people in the area aware of the problem in their province."

But with the ceremonies over, and the thick, noxious smoke rising from the drug pyre

gone, experts remain concerned that there have been no tangible improvements to law

enforcement's ability to wage war on the use and trafficking of illegal substances.

"I am not aware of any direct increases in funding," said Graham Shaw,

WHO technical adviser. "Indirectly - to NGOs for example - there have been increases,

but directly to the government, no."

The events of June 26 were primarily symbolic, Shaw said, but do illustrate the government's

awareness of the problem.

Methamphetamine use widespread

Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng, Minister of Interior and chairman of the National

Authority for Combating Drugs, presided over the Stung Treng ceremony.

He said methamphetamines, known as yama, are widely used in Cambodia, affecting the

health of the nation - for example through increasing rates of HIV/AIDS infection

- and the overall stability of society, through increasing antisocial behavior and

organized crime.

"You have to remember that drugs are something that cannot just be tried,"

he said. "If you try them they will defeat you and the dealer will benefit at

your expense."

But this kind of "just say no" attitude has been proved internationally

to be a counterproductive tool in the war on drugs, Shaw said.

"You have to be innovative and tell young people the truth about drugs: you

do get high at first; it can feel good." he said. "Then you tell them what

happens in the mid-to-long term, but if you are not honest with them, they won't

believe anything you say."

Although the government appears wedded to its regionally accepted but globally discredited

"tough love" approach to drug addicts, it is reorganizing the National

Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) in an attempt to improve the body's efficacy.

"The government have decided to reform themselves, to change their internal

structure," said Phauly Tea, project officer of the United Nations Office on

Drugs and Crime (UNODC). "The process of reform shows the true commitment of

the government to combating drugs in Cambodia."

The NACD is scheduled to be absorbed into the Ministry of Interior, with operational

staff in all NACD departments becoming Ministry of Interior employees. This change

would render NACD staff eligible for promotion and benefits within the government

system, from which they are currently excluded. The changes would also formalize

the role of the Minister of Interior as NACD chairman.

"It will help the lower ranking staff," said Shaw. "But wherever you

put the NACD in the government structure the key is how it will be able to perform

- and I think this will help."

According to Tea, neither the structural overhaul of the NACD nor the ceremonies

held nationwide on June 26 should be viewed as symbolic, because the government is

genuinely committed to improving its performance.

"The government is very aware that its current educational and preventative

activities are not responding to the actual situation on the ground," he said.

"A lack of funding, limited staff capacity, support for and inclusion of provincial

authorities - all of these are factors which limit the possibility of the government

reacting and responding to the actual situation. But they will try to improve."

Touch Naruth, Phnom Penh municipality Police Commissioner, reports that in the first

six months of 2006, Phnom Penh police have cracked 29 cases of drug trafficking,

arrested 45 criminals, seized 36,355 metamphetamine pills and sent 42 suspects to

be tried in municipal court.

Phnom Penh 'attractive for dealers'

"Cambodia is not a production country for drugs but it is the place where dealers

import their wares to later export them overseas," he said. "Phnom Penh

is attractive for dealers who seek to distribute drugs, via their networks of contacts

within nightclubs, hotels, guesthouses, massage clubs and karaoke parlors."

Since January, the NACD has cracked 189 cases of drug trafficking and arrested 361

offenders across Cambodia. In the same period, the NACD seized 287,124 methamphetamine

pills and more than 8 kg of heroin.

NACD secretary general Lour Ramin said the number of drug users increases annually

because Cambodia is close to the Golden Triangle region of Burma, Laos and Thailand

- an area infamous for its mass production of methamphetamines and for being the

source of much of the world's opium.

But it is not only its geographic location that makes Cambodia strategically important

for drug traffickers: the penalties for drug smuggling are lighter than in neighboring

countries, making it an appealing transit country, he said.

Some international donors have come forward to help, Ramin said, both in terms of

strengthening Cambodia's ability to resist being used as a transit country, and helping

to build facilities within the country to look after drug addicts.

The Japanese government has promised to provide the NACD with a drug treatment and

rehabilitation center in Phnom Penh, Ramin said.

"We cannot consider the drug users to be criminals," he said. "We

must treat them as victims."

In recognition of Cambodia's weak capacity to fight drug-related crime, Akira Fujino,

UNODC Asia-Pacific regional representative, said his agency has begun a project to

enhance the capacity of the NACD.

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