Even as human rights groups around the world decry the reign of terror unleashed in the name of drug enforcement in the Philippines, some countries in South and Southeast Asia are emulating Manila’s crackdown as a model. The latest to embark down this path is the island nation of Sri Lanka.
Death Penalty for Drugs — Again
Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena told his cabinet last week that he is “ready to sign the death warrants” of repeat drug offenders, according to a spokesperson. “From now on, we will hang drug offenders without commuting their death sentences,” the representative told The Guardian.
Sri Lanka declared a moratorium on executions in 1976, and since then, has been commuting death sentences to life in prison. There are now 19 drug convicts whose commuted death sentences are about be carried out — and that appears just to be the beginning.
“We were told that the Philippines has been successful in deploying the army and dealing with this problem,” the presidential representative said. “We will try to replicate their success.”
This quickly elicited protest. The European Union and other diplomatic missions immediately expressed their concern. In a joint statement, the EU delegation and the embassies of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Canada said they had written to Sirisena seeking urgent clarification on the matter.
The letter said the diplomats “strongly and unequivocally oppose capital punishment in all circumstances and in all cases,” according to the Associated Press. “The death penalty is incompatible with human dignity, does not have any proven deterrent effect and allows judicial errors to become fatal and irreversible.”
Cannabis Crackdown, Media ‘Ganja Madness’
Under Sri Lanka’s Poisons, Opium, and Dangerous Drugs Ordinance of 1984, only opiates and cocaine are punishable by death. But penalties for possession of cannabis, even in small quantities, are harsh — with judges having wide discretion to impose prison terms.
And the move to resume executions comes amid growing cannabis busts and much official hyperventilation about the threat posed by “Kerala ganja.” That’s the name for cannabis coming across the Palk Strait from the southern Indian state of Kerala, which has in recent years emerged as a major cannabis producer. India’s Deccan Chronicle reported in November of a wave of major seizures (up to 150 kilograms, or some 330 pounds) by Sri Lankan authorities, mostly along the island’s northern coast. There’s been much sensationalism in Sri Lanka’s media about the Kerala cannabis trade being under the control of Maoist guerillas.
In the latest haul, Sri Lankan naval forces arrested four Indian nationals bringing in a load of Kerala cannabis on July 16. Local news portal Colombo Page said the haul of 36 kilos was seized from an Indian ship west of Analathivu Island, off the northern coast.
Sri Lanka’s Cannabis Contradiction
There are also some signs of progress on the question of cannabis in Sri Lanka, even amid the big busts and media hype. The 1984 ordinance does make an exception for the cultivation of cannabis and production of extracts or tinctures — under tight government control. At present, there is little of that going on.
However, in 2013, the country’s minister of indigenous medicine submitted a bill to allow cultivation for medicinal purposes. Plus, the Ayurveda Act, the country’s principal law on medicine, does allow prescription of cannabis, which has a centuries-old tradition of medicinal use on the island.
Finally, a proposal for commercial cultivation for export to the international medical market was unveiled last September. The idea, reported by the AFP wire service, was announced by parliamentarian Rajitha Senaratne. He’s calling for a 40-hectare (100-acre) plantation to produce some 25 metric tons of cannabis a year — under military supervision. In pitching the idea, Senaratne noted Sri Lanka’s long history of medicinal use.
“Good cannabis is a vital ingredient in the preparation of traditional medicine,” he told reporters.
He noted that medical users in Sri Lanka now rely on handouts of seized contraband cannabis from judicial authorities. “By the time our native doctors get this cannabis, it is about four to five years old and it has lost its effectiveness,” Senaratne said. His proposed farm would assure quality for the domestic market as well as generate foreign exchange.
In short, Sri Lanka’s political establishment seems divided on the cannabis question — going simultaneously in contradictory directions.
Duterte’s Draconian Model
With President Sirisena openly emulating the Philippines’ ultra-hardline Rodrigo Duterte, it is clear that the stakes are high. In March 2017, when Philippine opposition lawmakers launched impeachment proceedings against Duterte, they charged that his murderous police and paramilitary forces had killed 8,000 drug suspects since he took office in June 2016. The figure is likely now much higher, as the “shoot-to-kill” policy has continued — while the strongman’s parliamentary bloc has held up the impeachment proceedings.
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s security forces already have plenty of experience in brutality. From the mid-1980s, the state fought a long and increasingly bloody war with ethnic Tamil guerrillas in the country’s north, until they were finally crushed in 2009. The Sri Lankan government is now rejecting calls for an international war crimes investigation into the conflict.
Nor is Sri Lanka alone in seeking to follow the Philippines’ bloody example. Last year, Indonesia imposed a “state of emergency” in response to a supposed crisis of illegal drug use, and announced a “shoot-to-kill” policy modeled on Duterte’s. This is already bearing grim fruit. Human Rights Watch this week issued a new report accusing Indonesian police of a “killing spree,” with many drug suspects shot while already in detention.
TELL US, do you support the death penalty?