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Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra, a media mogul turned Prime Minister who's brought a tough-guy stance and right-of-centre politics to government, has often been characterized as an Asian version of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. But, increasingly, Thais are invoking the name of an earlier, more infamous, Italian political figure in comparison.

Mr. Thaksin is no Mussolini, but his disdain for any criticism of his increasingly autocratic rule has clearly reversed some of Thailand's recent advances in human rights. Freedom of expression has suffered; a brutal campaign of extrajudicial executions seems to be taking place under the guise of a war on drugs; and significant social policies, such as the responses to the bird-flu outbreak and the spread of AIDS, are accepted without debate and implemented without monitoring.

Partly in recognition of this state of affairs, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and Human Rights Watch have just conferred their annual global award to the Thai Drug Users' Network, which has worked to stem the spread of AIDS and protect the human rights of drug users undermined by Mr. Thaksin's lethal war on drugs.

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Mr. Thaksin owns or has major stakes in many of Thailand's media outlets. But since his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party swept to power in 2001, his administration and personal financial empire have stifled Thailand's media and tried to project an unchallenged image of a no-nonsense, can-do government firmly in charge of a tranquil country. Within this context, media coverage of Mr. Thaksin's picture-perfect Thailand has had to conceal many serious reports of state-sponsored human-rights abuses.

Mr. Thaksin once told the Thai press corps, "Serving the country is more important than sending your news dispatches daily to your editors. Think before you do anything that damages the country."

According to the Thai Journalists Association and the Thai Broadcasters Association, more than 20 news editors have been dismissed, transferred or had their work tampered with to appease the government. In almost all the cases, managers of the media outlets chose to refrain from publicizing the government's pressure or criticizing its interference.

On taking office, for instance, Mr. Thaksin declared the suppression of methamphetamines to be at the top of his administration's agenda. To deliver on this promise, he launched, in February of 2003, a nationwide anti-drug campaign that quickly degenerated into a murderous war on drug dealers or users.

Within three months, nearly 2,500 people were killed; the government claimed that most died as a result of gang rivalry, but many were killed when they left police stations.

The Thai media have not vigorously investigated this outbreak of violence. Instead, the climate of fear and the practice of self-censorship have transformed the media into government cheerleaders. Amid widespread allegations that extrajudicial executions are officially approved in Thailand, a survey administered by the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology last August showed that 78 per cent of Thais expressed extreme satisfaction with the government's war on drugs.

As a result of muzzling the press, Mr. Thaksin has stifled some very necessary social debate. The outbreak of bird flu earlier this year once again highlighted government interference in the media, both through direct ownership and through pressure and manipulation of media owners.

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At one of Thailand's largest English-language newspapers, the Bangkok Post, Veera Prateepchaikul was reportedly removed from his post as editor to stifle the paper's criticisms of Mr. Thaksin and his government's mishandling of the bird-flu crisis. The news editor of iTV, which is 50 per cent owned by the Prime Minister's business empire, was also removed after the station broadcast a story critical of the government. The editor of Siamrath Weekly was pressed to resign after the newsmagazine's critical views on this issue.

Although the suppression of media coverage of the bird-flu outbreak revealed a systematic cover-up, the facts about the outbreak have never been fully disclosed. There has been no accountability from the government for the deaths of at least eight Thais, or for the near collapse of Thailand's poultry industry. The outbreak could have been more effectively contained if the media had been allowed to function independently and the public given better access to information.

The manipulation of the media also has undermined Thailand's fight against HIV/AIDS, one area where, until recently, the country could claim status as a model of successful social policy.

In the past, health experts praised Thailand's leadership against AIDS as a result of the country's successful "100-per-cent condom" campaign in the 1990s. That program prevented an estimated 200,000 HIV infections by providing condoms and HIV/AIDS information in brothels and health clinics. But Mr. Thaksin's war on drugs has reversed many of those gains.

In a 60-page report released before last week's International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Human Rights Watch documented that although dealers are the stated targets of the war on drugs, users not charged with dealing have been persecuted and driven into hiding; that, of course, prevents them from reaching needle-exchange programs and other HIV-prevention services. Many injection-drug users face the risk of HIV infection from the sharing of blood-contaminated syringes.

When Mr. Thaksin recently said that the Thai government no longer treats drug users as criminals but as patients, he was challenged by a protester holding a sign reading, "Thai Government's Drug Policy = Drop Dead."

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It is a simple message, and maybe even simplistic. But Mr. Thaksin has limited the arena for public debate to the extent that key social policies can only be challenged by those holding placards. There are real problems associated with the Prime Minister's harsh tactics. Ignoring them is bad for human rights and dangerous for Thailand.

Sam Zarifi is deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division.

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