Meet Colonel Fish Sauce

Written by Andrew Marshall

Posted on 22 June 2011

Meet Colonel Fish Sauce

This commentary accompanies “Asia’s Speed Trap,” a documentary for Al Jazeera’s 101 East programme. It appeared in the Jakarta Globe, The Nation, and other Asian newspapers.

By Orlando de Guzman & Andrew Marshall

We nicknamed him, rather cruelly, “Colonel Fish Sauce,” after the pungent staple ingredient in Thai cooking. The Royal Thai Army had invited us to film its drug rehabilitation program at a vast military base outside Bangkok, and the colonel’s bizarre advice to young drug users seemed to embody all that was wrong about the place.

“Eat lots of fish sauce,” he urged the men, who sat on the ground next to the colonel’s well-shined boots. “It replaces calcium and makes you sweat. The drugs come out with your sweat.”

Get caught on a minor drugs charge in Thailand, and you will likely be detained at a military-style boot camp like this, run by the armed forces or police. The one we visited for Al Jazeera’s “101 East” program is fairly typical. There, guarded by officers from an artillery regiment, a hundred or so men underwent the army’s version of rehab: four months of dawn-to-dusk military exercises.

They are not alone. Every year, hundreds of thousands of drug offenders end up at boot camps across Asia. Some camps are brutal: detainees at facilities in China, Vietnam and Cambodia have been subjected to torture and forced labor, reports Human Rights Watch. All are ineffectual: relapse rates hover between 60% and 95%, reports the World Health Organization. So why do most Asian governments still favor them?

One charitable answer: out of sheer panic. Asia is awash with a highly addictive drug called methamphetamine. The pill form is often known by its Thai name yaba (“crazy medicine”), while the purer, crystalline form is called ice, shabu, or speed. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, it is now the “first choice drug” in China, Japan, Taiwan, and much of Southeast Asia.

Every year, police in these countries seize millions of yaba pills and hundreds of kilos of ice. But this still represents only a tiny fraction of what Asia produces and consumes. With law-enforcement agencies proving incapable of shutting off the supply, then reducing demand is paramount. But the repressive rehab policies favored by most Asian governments have barely dented it.

Methamphetamine can be eaten, smoked, snorted, or injected. Euphoric highs—the drug boosts energy, self-esteem and sexual pleasure—are often followed by crashing lows. Withdrawal symptoms can include fatigue, anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, loss of appetite, and depression.

Addiction is hard to treat. There is no methadone-like substitution drug. (Fish sauce is no help.) Heavy users can take months or even years to recover. Dependence is best treated with psychosocial and other behavioral therapies, which require time, money, and expertise.

It is cheaper and easier to incarcerate men at army camps and march them up and down for four months, often much longer. If high relapse rates don’t bother Asian governments much, it’s because boot camps aren’t really designed to rehabilitate users. They are designed to punish users, and thereby demonstrate that a government is tough on drugs.

Asians are sick of the havoc that methamphetamine is wreaking on families and communities. They desperately want solutions, and politicians are always happy to promise quick fixes. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for example, absurdly insists that its 10 member countries will be “drug free” by 2015. Good luck. In 2009, more than 135,000 people were arrested on drug-related charges in Thailand alone.

Detention centers were partly designed to decriminalize users and keep them out of Asian prisons already overcrowded with drug offenders. Sure, most boot camp detainees don’t get criminal records. But they are stigmatized, cut off from their families and jobs, and eventually released back into drug-saturated societies with no real-life training to help them stay clean.

One surprising exception to this is Malaysia. Surprising, because this Muslim-majority nation isn’t exactly famous for its progressive policies. (Recently, one state sent dozens of schoolboys to a boot camp to address their “effeminate tendencies.”) The Global Commission on Drug Policy recently urged world leaders “to articulate publicly what many of them acknowledge privately”: that repressive strategies don’t work. Zuraidah Mohamed, who last year took charge of Malaysia’s National Anti-Drugs Agency (NADA), has done exactly that.

“We’ve been in this compulsory [drug rehab] business for 28 years,” she told us. “The result is not encouraging at all. Something had to be done.” That something is what NADA calls Cure & Care Clinics. Drug users report to these clinics voluntarily and are treated as patients with a chronic, relapsing disease. At a clinic outside Kuala Lumpur, we filmed a group therapy session in which Malaysian men and women sat in a circle with counselors and discussed what triggered them to relapse into drug use. The difference between this spirited session and the one run by Colonel Fish Sauce couldn’t have been more striking.

NADA now runs seven Cure & Care Clinics and plans to open another 10 by 2013. Skeptics note that Malaysia still has 20 compulsory rehab centers, where conditions can be appalling—inmates rioted and set fire to one in Johor state just last week. But NADA’s change of direction remains a laudable exception in a region where the trend is still toward increasing compulsory rehab. Methamphetamine is Asia’s favorite high, but repressive and counterproductive drug policies are proving just as hard a habit to kick.

Watch Asia’s Speed Trap on Al Jazeera’s 101 East program.

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