Police burst into the dark nightclub after midnight, weave through the crowd and lock the doors, trapping nearly 400 bewildered customers inside. The lights flicker on and a voice over loudspeakers orders everyone to submit to urine tests for drugs.
It’s part of a three-year-old “social order” campaign to curb drug abuse that has cast a damper over Saturday night partying in Bangkok.
It started in 2001 with the then interior minister, Purachai Piemsomboon, leading television crews into the neon-lit venues on high-profile busts. He has since gone on to higher office, but his “Mr. Clean” title has passed to Pracha Maleenont, a former entertainment business and TV station owner, who hasn’t missed a beat in seeking to tame Bangkok’s famously freewheeling nightlife.
“The rules are there and so easy to follow,” Pracha, 57, said after taking office as deputy interior minister in late 2002. “Don’t do anything illegal and I’ll leave you alone.”
'An annual event'
On a recent night, authorities trained their sights on the Q Bar, a chic Thai-owned establishment often packed with Thai and foreign customers.
Waving flashlights, about 50 officers in brown uniforms or civilian clothes moved through the club, handing out sample bottles to the men and women. Woozy customers, men and women, crowded into bathrooms. Someone vomited. Others cursed the police, denying they had taken drugs. The operation went on for about three hours, ending after 3 a.m.
Each had to hand a sample to health workers who came with the police, and had to show ID. But there was no system for making sure a customer handed in his or her own urine, and some said they provided samples for others.
“It’s pretty much an annual event. It’s a little bit like Christmas,” said Richard Lofthouse, Q Bar’s general manager. “It seems the last few years it’s happened around exactly the same time — August-September.”
Guests who passed got a green stamp on their forearm. Just two out of 373 people tested positive, and were later cleared, according to club sources who asked not to be identified. The tests cannot distinguish between illicit drugs and legal medications, police say.
Even the absence of drugs is no protection against trouble. Last year, police tried to make the club prohibit dancing because it allegedly didn’t have the appropriate license, Lofthouse said. And this time around, 104 foreigners were bused to a police station where they were fined a small sum for not carrying their passport.
Had drugs or underage guests been found in the Q Bar, police could have closed it for 30 days. All the same, and even though no charges were filed, police threatened to shut down the club for a week, but relented when managers suggested the matter be settled in court.
Interior Ministry officials said statistics on the number and frequency of the raids were not available, but police say they raid nightclubs every week.
The crackdown is part of a campaign by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government to fight drugs and promote what it calls traditional values. Last year, Thaksin launched a violent war on drugs that left 2,300 suspected dealers dead and provoked accusations of human rights violations. Nightspots outside designated entertainment areas have to close earlier and youths under 18 are subject to a curfew.