Suffer the Children

When Toey first caught a glimpse of her newborn son, Krungchai Thammapongwisut, she was overcome with such joy that she adorned him with the nickname "Wang," the Thai word for hope. Fourteen years later, Wang has become just another drug addict, a desperate victim of both a system that marginalizes the poor and a crisis that has torn apart the social fabric of many poor urban families. Other than causing suicide rates to double, the crisis has virtually eliminated the entire gains in poverty reduction achieved since 1981. By mid-1998, close to 2 million Thais had lost their jobs due to the crisis. Women, who made up 90 percent of the textile and electronics workforce, were particularly hit hard. Some found new, but far more precarious and low-paying, jobs while others, like Wang’s mother, were abandoned by husbands looking for new wives with more secure jobs. At first, selling sweet tapioca desserts in Bangkok’s Victory Monument area allowed Wang’s mother to survive the initial shock of Thailand’s economic crash, but in short time, Wang’s mother turned to selling methamphetamine, a synthetic stimulant known in the West as "speed" and in Thailand as "yaba" (meaning, literally, crazy drug).

Cheap and easy to buy, yaba has become the drug of choice in Thailand in recent years, and its spiralling use serves as a grim reminder of the impact that Thailand’s violent financial collapse has had on its people. As more and more parents struggle to feed and clothe their families, they often turn to drugs, using them either to work longer hours or to earn more money by selling them. In the past three years, over 100 teachers have even been caught for selling yaba to their students. Like the 50,000 other Thais serving time on drug charges, however, time ran out for Wang’s mother as well, and after nearly a year of selling yaba to residents of her slum neighborhood, Wang’s mother was finally caught with 1,800 tablets in her possession. Her sentence: three years in prison. But Wang’s problems didn’t end there. Although an aunt agreed to take him in, Wang had continued taking yaba, a habit he developed in the course of being sent out to buy pills for his mother. Fed up with trying to stop her nephew from abusing yaba, Wang’s aunt decided to check the troubled boy into Bann Tawan Mai, a drug-rehabilitation center and refuge just outside Bangkok. Standing to one side with regret and sadness, Wang’s aunt hears him shrieking for her not to leave him, but says remorsefully, "There’s nothing else I can do. I don’t want him to become like my sister - what future is there for children like Wang?"