Southeast Asia’s War on Drug Abusers

(This article was originally published in the World Policy Blog)

By Christopher Bartolotta

Que Phong was in his late 20s when he decided to get help for his heroin addiction. For the next five years, he was forced to husk cashews for hours a day, enduring endless verbal and physical abuse as cashew resin burned layers of his skin. Euphemistically called “vocational training,” tens of thousands of Vietnamese drug users like Que Phong are doing nothing more than forced labor, according to Human Rights Watch. The report “The Rehab Archipelago: Forced Labor and Other Abuses in Drug Detention Centers in Southern Vietnam” released on Sept. 7 details the years of forced labor for little or no pay suffered by drug users in 14 of the 16 drug rehabilitation facilities in and around Ho Chi Minh City. While the report sheds light on this disturbing practice in Vietnam, these abuses are not solely a Vietnamese phenomenon. Across a wide swath of Southeast Asia, ill-conceived compulsory detention centers are abusing suspected users in a futile attempt to rid their countries of drugs.

In Vietnam, seeds of the problem were sewn after Communist victory in 1975. The new government built camps for drug users and sex offenders to “re-educate” them through forced labor. Throughout the 1990s, these centers expanded as politicians undertook a campaign to rid society of what they deemed a “social evil”. Since the year 2000 alone, the number of centers in the country has more than doubled, with 123 functioning facilities in 2011.

Inmates are usually sent to the centers directly by the police, but a few citizens enter voluntarily, believing the treatment centers will gently ease them from their dependence. Once inside, even those who enter by choice often have their stays extended on the whims of the authorities. Some drug users are incarcerated for five years without any trial. In the report, one detainee, who attempted to escape, said he was beaten, shocked with an electric baton, and kept in solitary confinement for an entire month.

But Vietnam is not alone in its inhumane treatment of drug users. China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, all use “administrative detention, forced detoxification, and forced labor,” says Dr. Chris Beyrer, director of the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at the Johns Hopkins University.

The “treatments” in centers near Ho Chi Minh include the forced labor of processing cashews, sewing clothing, and manufacturing items for hours without compensation, according to the Human Rights Watch.  Dr. Beyrer says these practices are not only clear violations of human rights but also fruitless. “There is no evidence of the efficacy of these detention centers for drug treatment,” he says, “but there is abundant evidence emerging of human rights violations, harsh working conditions, denial of access to health care, detention of children and adolescents with adults, and in the cases of Vietnam and China, slave labor conditions in an increasingly for-profit sector.”

The problem comes down to perception. The people in these facilities are not viewed as patients; they are viewed as criminals. In many cases, police or military personnel run the “rehabilitation” facilities rather than doctors and nurses. Instead of therapy being tailored by a health professional to a person’s individual needs, patients are forced to go through the horrors and tortures of a cold withdrawal living in horrid conditions and performing manual labor.

In many of these countries, drug users admitted into rehabilitation centers are considered “patients” by law—but they are not treated as such. Vietnam has recently extended the amount of time a rehabilitation facility can hold a user from three months to five years.

There is another way. Indonesia is at the forefront of a movement working towards an effective and compassionate model of rehabilitation. Two of the leaders of this movement are David and Joyce Gordon, founders of the rehabilitation facility Yakita, which they started in 1999. Yakita now operates 15 locations throughout Indonesia. When Ms. Gordon and her husband started the organization, Indonesia only had facilities focused on reforming drug users through work and religion. Yakita strives to provide a community for drug users—where addicts can learn from former addicts—and seek to understand the individual and their needs. Yakita has numerous programs that addicts can utilize, such as detoxification, recovery, peer counseling, and relapse education, among others.

Gordon believes that military-style treatment stems from a basic misunderstanding of addiction. “It’s not simply the behavior that needs to be approached, but also the thinking side of any addict,” she says. The law may say drug use is illegal, but taking a punitive approach to drug abuse, she says, will not cure them of their addiction. “It’s tragic to see addicts who are looking for real help but are not able to access it,” she says. As Gordon explains, this often has fatal consequences, “With continued use there will only be three tragic ends: institutionalization, prison, or death.”

To stop the human rights abuses in Southeast Asia and to give drug users a better chance to reform their lives, more countries must adopt the harm reduction strategy that Indonesia is moving toward. Governments and judicial systems need to stop classifying drug users as criminals. Gordon says, “We still need to educate the judges and the attorneys who are used to looking at this through the law as a ‘crime’ rather than an ‘affliction’ that can be fixed if the need of drugs is diminished through treatment and recovery.”

Indeed, a passion for rehabilitation—not retribution—is the key. When it comes to drug abuse, it is far easier to punish someone than it is to help. Compulsory drug treatment centers that rely on forced labor need to be shut down and replaced by facilities focused on treating the individual medically. This approach will not only help the drug users with their addiction, it will also help educate these societies that drug users don’t forfeit their human rights. Instead of being treating like vagrants, they should be treated like patients.

[Photo by Christopher Shay]