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By Christopher Bartolotta
Unable to escape, detainees inside the Somsanga Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Vientiane, Laos have hung themselves, ingested glass, and swallowed soap. The harsh conditions that led to so many suicide attempts are not unique to this drug treatment center. As World Policy reported last month, inhumane treatment of drug users is the norm throughout Southeast Asia. While a few countries and facilities are now focusing on voluntary rehabilitation, far too many countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia, China, and Laos, vindictively punish drug users as criminals instead of treating them as patients.
Released on Tuesday, the Human Rights Watch report titled “Somsanga’s Secrets: Arbitrary Detention, Physical Abuse, and Suicide inside a Lao Drug Detention Center”exposes the inhumane practices of the Somsanga facility. While the global consensus on drug treatment is that rehabilitation should be voluntary, in Laos, armed guards patrol 24 hours a day and beat those caught escaping unconscious.
Those who enter Somsanga get there in one of two ways. Some voluntarily enroll, mistakenly believing that the center will actually help them overcome their addiction. Others are rounded up by a local militia and detained at the facility against their will. One man, who describes himself as a beggar, is quoted in the HRW report saying that the militia took him into custody just for being in the street late at night. He was detained at Somsanga for nine months.
This is routine in the capital of Laos. In 2009, before the 25th Southeast Asia games, the Lao government set up a hotline for citizens to report beggars, who were then rounded up and taken to Somsanga. These measures make it clear that the compound is not a drug rehabilitation facility; it is a dumping ground for what the government decides are the unsavory elements of its society.
One of the most disturbing facts revealed in the report is the source of the center’s funding. According to HRW, as part of the global war on drugs, Somsanga has been funded by the United States, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, embassies in Vientiane, and other international organizations. Unknowingly, instead of providing for the effective treatment of drug users, these donors have built the fences and armed the guards that keep detainees inside the nightmare of Somsanga.
You can explore photos by Arantxa Cedillo from inside the Somsanga facility here.
Christopher Bartolotta is an Editorial Assistant at World Policy Journal and Editor-in-Chief of the Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations.
[Photo by Arantxa Cedillo]