Leashing Thailand’s Cops

If there was ever an example of free enterprise, it is Thailand's brown-uniformed police. Waiters in Starbuck's coffee outlets are better paid than entry-level constables, making it imperative for them to use entrepreneurial élan to supplement their salaries. That usually means suborning bribes from the lowest level to the highest.

At the top end, the highest police authorities are universally suspected of being in cahoots with drug peddlers and other criminal elements. While towards the end of the month when rents are due and bills must be paid, Bangkok motorists are often witness to long lines of cars and motorcycles pulled over while cops find reasons for them to pay roadside "fines."

On Monday, Army-appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont fired the national police chief, after a month of little progress in investigations into New Year's Eve bombs that killed three people in Bangkok. Kowit Wattana, who was replaced by one of his deputies, General Sereepisut Taemeeyaves, was also a member of the Council for National Security (CNS), the group who ousted Thaksin in a September coup. No reason for the dismissal was given, according to Reuters.

The lack of progress on the bombings is just one of many problems with the police but the biggest issue for the generals and their allies may be a compulsion to destroy the power base of deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as to clean up the force, a 28-member committee under the current interim government is trying to clean up the national police. The worry of some observers is that the effort is more a smokescreen for political consolidation by the military than it is a genuine drive for reform and accountability.

Chief among the proposals is decentralization, a move long suggested by academics who believe the police forces should be broken into regional or provincial commands reporting to local authorities with public oversight. But how that oversight will be maintained is unclear.

Chaired by Vasit Dejkunjorn, a retired police general widely held to be honest and competent, the committee’s real motivation may be to root out Thaksin's considerable power base inside the force. A former police lieutenant colonel, Thaksin increased the power of the police to levels not seen since the 1950s when the tyrant Phao Sriyanon, a police general, terrorized the country. Thaksin gave police associates plum jobs ranging from the interior minister's chair to overseeing a lottery organization accused of funding the prime minister's pet projects.

Under his tenure, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), envisioned as a Thai equivalent of America's Federal Bureau of Investigation, was stuffed with policemen, severely undermining its ability to investigate and prosecute crooked cops. Until now, his appointees run the police, a fact surely not lost on the provisional military government installed by September’s coup.

"The police have never been known to be an honest institution. But Mr. Thaksin's use of the police as a political instrument has blown the problem out of proportion," says Kraisak Choonhavan, a human rights activist and former senator.

Around 2,000 people were murdered when Thaksin ordered the police and other state agencies to wage a 'war on drugs', which hounded users and retailers, but left kingpins largely untouched, say most analysts. Human rights activists also accuse the police of running death squads but investigations have gone nowhere. "It is glaringly clear what has happened under Thaksin. Witnesses to two cases of his own corruption have been killed," says Kraisak.

Despite Vasit's reputation, there is also good reason to be skeptical of devolving authority to local levels. Deadly competition is common for power and influence between local cliques is common within provincial assemblies and administrations appointed governors. Police are often employed by politicians to do their dirty work.

"This would cause any police officers hoping to advance in their careers to run to the governors or department heads over provincial administrative organizations. In the end, these leaders would become the new provincial mafia," says Kriengsak Chareonwongsak, executive director of the Institute of Future Studies for Development, a think-tank.

"[Provincial control] would dramatically worsen the situation and make the police more, not less, politicized," says Nick Cheesman, a researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission secretariat in Hong Kong.

Decentralization seems unlikely to bring accountability. "Without command responsibility, which does not in practice exist in any agency in Thailand, decentralization of any sort is meaningless," Cheesman says.

Proposals to revamp training regimens and strip the police of duties in forensics and crime scene investigation also may well run into trouble from entrenched officers. Fire and rescue services were, with much resistance, transferred from the police to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration under Thaksin. A plan to transfer immigration to the interior ministry, however, appears to have stalled.

Other measures under discussion include raising pay, given the constant shakedowns by police topping up their salaries. In Thailand such practices evolved from the 'tax farms' handed out by absolute monarchs in the 19th century, a time when state agencies, especially police and customs, used corruption and unofficial fees to fund their agencies.

That meant smaller state budgets and less tax than might otherwise be the case, but at the cost of severely undermining the state's ability to act impartially and competently.

Nevertheless, even with the purest of intentions it may be all but impossible to reduce the vast powers of the police without cleaning a justice system itself, which has no juries, only unelected magistrates.

"In order to have genuine reform of the police force you have to adjust the entire justice system, which is very biased against poor people. You have to reform both simultaneously," says Jai Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University and leader of an anti-coup protest network.

In Thailand, public prosecutors and the courts have no power of inquiry or investigation – that remains in the hands of the police. "To reduce their power, police should only have investigative power and act under supervision of the public prosecutor and the courts. The inquiry power should be transferred to the public prosecutor," says Somchai Homlaor, chairman of the human rights committee of the Law Society of Thailand. In the current system, it is seen as enormously difficult to prosecute police officers accused of crimes, for example.

Moreover, despite the complexity of the task Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a retired army general, promises to implement reforms elections due by the end of the year. And if they are not, he insists a mechanism will be found to ensure they are seen through by the next government, which could well include many of Thaksin's cronies.

How the interim government will ensure that a future, presumably civilian, administration implements its plans for the police is hard to fathom. Some academics and democracy activists fear the military plans to maintain an influential role in politics long after its caretaker role is over.

Given that for three decades governments have been talking of police reform, there seems little reason why the caretakers must touch this and other highly political issues before the next elected government takes office, in this view. "It looks to me that they only want to break up the national police force because it is a rival for the military and a tool of Thaksin," says Ungpakorn.

The military is putting all security agencies, including the police and the DSI, under the reinvigorated Internal Security Operations Command, which was used to battle the communist insurgency during the cold war. This raises the specter that whatever public scrutiny comes to pass could be overruled by the military.

"The return to the earlier model of military control of the police is already underway. The reconfiguration of the Internal Security Operations Command with unprecedented new powers and no accountability as a coordinating body for all investigative agencies is indicative of the army's real intentions," says the Asian Human Rights Commission’s Cheesman.

That will ruffle the feathers of many inside the police but it is unlikely to do anything to diminish Thaksin's support among them or cause police-for-hire to desert opportunistic politicos. "I'm very concerned that this alone could be turn into a full-blown bureaucratic conflict, the military versus police," Choonhavan says.

So while the military might be left holding a tenuous leash on the police, the rivalry and conflict between the green and brown uniforms will remain and little will have changed for the average constable, who will be left serving and protecting his commanders and their political masters instead of the law and the public.