Drugs and drug wars as populist tropes in Asia: Illustrative examples and implications for drug policy

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The Philippines may be the face of today's ‘drug wars’, but its experience is by no means exceptional - as the contemporary examples of Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka show. In the early 2000s Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra also embarked on a ‘drug war’ with striking parallels to the Philippines in terms of its human toll and failed outcomes. This paper uses the framework of populism - defined as a political style - to survey punitive drug regimes in Asia and make sense of their social and political efficacies. It identifies the divisions mobilized and reinforced by populists as well as the ways in which they perform and spectacularize national crises.


Drawing from journalistic and scholarly sources, as well as official documents, four case studies are presented: two historical (1970s Philippines and 2000s Thailand) and two contemporary (Bangladesh and Indonesia) to show how this style travels across the region.


While drug wars can be understood in terms of the moral panics that surround them, this paper highlights the role of individual political actors who mobilize these panics by dramatizing crises, forging divisions, and making knowledge claims about drugs and the people who use them. Particularly for the region's ‘drug wars’, common elements include the conflation of the ‘drug menace’ with ethnic, economic ‘others’ - as well as misleading or exaggerated epidemiological and medical claims.


If, as demonstrated by the illustrative examples in this article, those who choose to invoke drugs do so by making knowledge claims and forging divisions, then possible responses include challenging those claims (and providing evidence to do), uncoupling drugs with particular groups, and furnishing historical perspectives that belie populist claims of exceptional crises and the purported efficacy of punitive, dramatic responses.