High times in Kabul

June 18, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Colin Freeze

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Afghan farmer looks at anti-narcotics poster in Talbozag village June 14, 2009.

REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Kabul — Sayyed Mohammed, 28, has hollow eyes, a fist full of coins, and a $4-a-day heroin habit.

“I’m addicted,” he tells me in an open air drug market in Kabul, both of us ankle-deep in rubble and ruin.

“I was treated two times in Pakistan, but for one month, I’ve been readdicted.”

Part of the reason he’s back on drugs, he says, is because they are so cheap. “Each dosage costs 100 Afgani,” he explained – the equivalent of $2.

In Afghanistan, opium, and its derivative, heroin, have long tended to be seen as export commodities. Addiction? Largely a foreign problem.

But the nation is slowly realizing the chickens have come home to roost. In rural regions such as Kandahar, the complaints centre on insurgents taxing the opium crops, funding insurgency to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year.

In urban areas such as Kabul, where the Taliban and poppies are less visible, the complaints centre on the corrupting power of drug money, evidenced in the “poppy palaces” that have popped up around town.

Families speak of young men who are getting high instead of getting jobs.

Ground zero for this is Kabul’s Russian Cultural Centre, a sprawling complex shelled heavily during the civil wars of the 1990s. Faded murals still show industrious workers cast in the Soviet Realist mould, but today’s denizens have succumbed to a culture of hopelessness and despair.

Dozens of addicts call the centre home, including Mr. Mohammed, who was reflective before he wandered off to exchange his coins for more drugs.

“Heroin has given a bad name to Afghanistan,” he said. He added he was more concerned about teenagers than himself. “The problem is that they are jobless,” he said. “I tell them, ‘It is not going to reduce your problems, it is going to add to your problems.’ ”

Afghanistan grows more opium than the world can use, forcing rivals such as Myanmar and Laos have cut back because their poppies can no longer compete.

“For a number of years now, Afghan opium production has exceeded [world] demand,” wrote the United Nation’s office on drugs and crime last year.

“The bottom should have fallen out of the opium market,” it said. “It has not.”

Prices, however, have fallen somewhat, and this may also have helped spread addiction in Afghanistan “It’s an increasing problem, day by day,” said Jamal Nazir, a social worker at a Kabul rehab clinic.

Many of his patients arrive from the Russian Cultural Centre, he said, including teenagers. “I have special sympathies because they are the energy of Afghanistan.”

Families shuffled in and out of the rehab centre before Friday prayers. The visitors came from every strata, from poor farmers to the local gentry.

“My wife’s brother, he is addicted,” said Dr. Shah Mahmoud. “Our youths go out of Afghanistan, for work to Iran or neighboring countries, and get addicted.”
He complained of “high authorities,” getting involved in the drug trade and with mafia groups.

Afghanistan’s culture of impunity has to end, he said.

“We blame the government for this problem,” he said. “The government should arrest and hand over to the law those people who are involved in this criminal business.”

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Thailand Accused of Mistreating Muslim Refugees

January 29, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Courtesy Simon Montlake, The Christian Science Monitor

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The Rohingya Muslim people, subject to horrible state persecution  in Burma, have sought refuge in Bangladesh; recently hundreds were refused entry into Thailand.

BANGKOK, THAILAND – Hundreds of Muslim refugees from Burma (Myanmar) are feared missing or dead after Thai troops forced them onto boats without engines and cut them adrift in international waters, according to human rights activists and authorities in India who rescued survivors. The revelations have shone a spotlight on the Thai military’s expulsion policy toward Muslims it sees as a security threat.

Nearly 1,000 refugees were detained on a remote island in December before being towed out to sea in two batches and abandoned with little food or water, according to a tally by a migrant-rights group based on survivors’ accounts and media reports. The detainees, mostly members of Burma’s oppressed Rohingya minority, then drifted for weeks. One group was rescued by Indonesia’s Navy, and two others made landfall in India’s Andaman Islands.

Photos of refugees on a Thai island show rows of bedraggled men stripped to the waist as soldiers stand guard. In a separate incident, foreign tourists snapped pictures of detainees trussed on a beach. Thailand’s Andaman coastline, where the abuses took place, is a popular vacation spot.

PM Abhisit Vejjajiva has launched an investigation. Military officials have denied any ill treatment of refugees, while offering conflicting accounts of how they ended up lost at sea. The military has accused the Rohingya, who often travel via Thailand to Malaysia to work or seek asylum, of assisting a Muslim-led insurgency in southern Thailand.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is pressing Thailand for access to 126 Rohingya that it says are in Thai custody. These include 46 boat people reportedly detained on Jan. 16 and handed over to military custody. It said a second group of 80 Rohingya, which reportedly had previously been pushed out to sea and drifted back, had been transferred to the tiny detention island.

There was no sign Thursday of any detainees there, said a Western source in the area. Villagers said boat people had been held there by local guards under military command, before being towed out to sea by fishing vessels. Rickety vessels said to have carried the refugees were beached on the island, the source said.

Amid accusations of a military cover-up, the Thai government has promised a full accounting. “The military has agreed to a fact-finding investigation … [but] we’re not dependent on their input alone,” says Panitan Wattanyagorn, a spokesman.

That probe will expose Mr. Abhisit’s weak command of the military, which sees the Rohingya and other undocumented Muslims as a threat, says Paul Quaglia, director of PSA Asia, a security consultancy in Bangkok. He says there’s no evidence that the Rohingya, who speak a Bengali dialect, have joined insurgents in the Malay-speaking south, where more than 3,500 people have died since 2004.

“Abhisit is … beholden to the military for getting his job – and keeping his job,” he says.

Thailand has long been a magnet for millions of economic migrants as well as refugees escaping persecution in Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Human traffickers often play a role moving both groups, exposing those on the run to egregious abuses. Thailand has a mixed record on hosting refugees.

Most Rohingya, who are denied legal rights in Burma, begin their journey in Bangladesh, where more than 200,000 live in unofficial camps. A further 28,000 are registered with the UNHCR. From there, men pay smugglers for passage across the Indian Ocean to Thailand, usually as a transit stop to reach Malaysia, a Muslim country with a sizable Rohingya population. Some Bangladeshis also travel there.

In recent years, boats crossing during winter months have increased. Between 2004 and 2008, the number of Rohingya detained by police rose to 4,866, up from 2,763, says Kraisak Choonhavan, a government lawmaker.

Some of these Rohingya have been repatriated to Burma. Others have paid smugglers to complete their journey to Malaysia, or become victims of traffickers, say rights activists. That appears to have changed as the military has got involved.

In security briefings, military officials repeatedly draw a link between Rohingya refugees and separatist violence in the south, says Sunai Pasuk, with Human Rights Watch, which has received reports of sea “pushbacks” since 2007. “This is not just an isolated incident. There must be a policy behind it,” he says.

Mr. Kraisak, a deputy leader of the ruling Democrat party, criticized the violation of human rights. But he said the outflow of refugees from Burma was a problem that Thailand can’t handle alone. “We have to confer on the international stage. Thais have been too tolerant,” he says.

In interviews with Indian security officials, survivors said uniformed Thai personnel shot four refugees and tossed another into the sea before forcing their group to board a wooden barge. Some 400 crowded onto the barge, which was towed to sea for about 18 hours with armed soldiers aboard. They shared two bags of rice and two gallons of water, according to a transcript in the South China Post.

The barge drifted for more than a week. Of 300 people who tried to swim to shore, only 11 survived. An additional 88 were rescued by the Coast Guard.

The Rohingya people are very oppressed in Burma.  The people, from western Burma’s Arakan State, are forbidden from marrying or travelling without permission and have no legal right to own land or property.

Not only that but even though groups of them have been living in Burma for hundreds of years, they are also denied citizenship by the country’s military government.

For decades this Muslim group of ethnic-Indo origins have been considered the lowest of the low in this mainly Buddhist country. In 1992, 250,000 Rohingyas, a third of their population, fled over Burma’s border into Bangladesh to escape the persecution. Years later more than 20,000 of them are still in the same refugee camps and around 100,000 more are living illegally in the surrounding area.

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