Global HIV and drug-policy activists were saddened in mid-July to learn of the death—likely, but not confirmed, from cancer—of Suwan Arjwichai, 47, who for the past 20 years had played a large role helping HIV-positive and other Thai people who use drugs fight for humane drug policy in a country that in the past has brutally cracked down on that community.
“He played a main role keeping drug users with HIV alive before there was effective treatment, and then in creating harm reduction drop-in centers,” said Karyn Kaplan, the head of Asia Catalyst, which promotes harm reduction for marginalized groups throughout Asia.
Kaplan befriended Arjwichai in the early 2000s during the formation of the Thai Drug Users Network (TDN), a peer advocacy group that formed just before Thailand’s then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra cracked down brutally on drug users and dealers, leading to thousands of extrajudicial killings of people who, it was later found, often had nothing to do with drugs or the drug trade.
With fellow HIV-positive drug-user activist Paisan Suwannawong, with whom Arjwichai was living before he died, Arjwichai started TDN because “they were adamant that people who use drugs always still had access to treatment and services,” says Kaplan. The group, she says, brought the international human-rights community’s attention to the Thai drug war, directly addressed the prime minister at the International AIDS Conference of 2004 in Bangkok, held die-ins in public spaces to protest the drug war, and went to the Grand Palace to beg the King of Thailand to intervene.
“The folks in TDN always said that they had nothing to lose, because they were already dying of HIV and drug overdoses,” says Kaplan.
Arjwichai got into activism after showing up for help at Alden House, the only shelter for drug users—cofounded by Suwannawong and a Catholic priest—that accepted HIV-positive people, sex workers, gay and transgender people, and other minorities. “He got there, lived there, and eventually worked there,” says Kaplan. “He was a quiet but determined activist who helped make T-shirts for the first action of TDN,” which was founded on International Human Rights Day of 2002. “He really believed in the power of peer-led networks.”
At the time of his death, Arjwichai was not only taking care of his elderly father but working for the Ozone Foundation, a recipient of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, doing peer outreach to help drug users access treatment and services.
“Suwan lost many thousands of peers,” says Kaplan, “but then, because of the fight for HIV treatment access and the making of generic HIV drugs in Thailand, there was this great plateau where people just stopped dying. But now, a lot of those longtime survivors like Suwan have been losing their lives as they get into their 50s. It’s painful.”
Says Suwannawong from Bangkok: “Suwan was a good friend who was very supportive of all the actions that TDN did. He was very low-key. He didn’t need a spotlight on him.”