Thai Prince Said to Trigger Police Purge

A figurative earthquake passed through the notoriously corrupt Thai police this week with the arrests of some of the force’s top officials, including Pongpat Chayaphan, the head of the Central Investigation Bureau, Thailand’s FBI.

Seven of Pongpat’s colleagues were arrested with him on charges of soliciting bribes for job appointments, allowing illegal gaming and oil smuggling and were paraded before reporters. An unnamed suspect died in custody after being transferred from his post but before he was charged, according to authorities, who said he had committed suicide by leaping from a building, although he was almost immediately cremated, leading to suspicion that something else might have happened to him.

It would be tempting to believe that the arrests mean the military, which staged a coup on May 22 and vowed to clean out Thailand’s endemic corruption, have finally started in on the police, six months after Prayuth Chan-ocha took charge of the country and drove out forces aligned with fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The police have been regarded as Thaksin’s power base, having risen himself from police ranks.

Berthelsen-prince-2

But according to several sources, there may be a darker and more puzzling reason for the arrests.

Pongpat is the uncle of Princess Srirasmi Akharapongpreecha, the consort to Maha Vajiralongkorn, Crown Prince and heir to the Thai throne. The 42-year-old consort regarded in Thai society circles as a onetime cocktail hostess, married Vajiralongkorn in 2001 and is his third wife. A fourth wife is already ensconced in the palace and is said to be pregnant.

According to several sources, the crown prince has asked the Privy Council, the king’s advisers, for the monarch’s permission to divorce Srirasmi but reportedly the Privy Council refused as they did not wish to disturb the ailing king,Bhumibol Adulyadej, who at 86 years of age is in extremely ill health after having suffered a stroke that has basically incapacitated him.

Nothing is known publicly although royal circles are buzzing with the story. It bears resemblance to the prince’s marriage to his second wife, charitably described as an aspiring actress who was also commissioned as a major in the Royal Thai Army at the prince’s behest and who participated in royal ceremonies. There were concerns that she had amassed power of her own. Accused of adultery, she was forced to flee to the United Kingdom with their four children. The prince, however, abducted their daughter and brought her back to Thailand to live with him. She has been elevated to the rank of princess and the wife and the other three children were stripped of their passports.

With King Bhumibol apparently near death and all but comatose, Thailand has been wracked behind the scenes with concern over the succession, not least because Vajiralongkorn is believed close to the fugitive Thaksin, who is said to have built him a palace – although he may close be no longer. The prince has been described in secret cables liberated by Wikileaks from the US Embassy as unstable. Members of the Privy Council have confided that they fear his elevation to the throne and would prefer his sister, Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. However, the laws of succession specify that the heir to the throne must be a male.

Because of the sensitive nature of the succession, authorities have used the lèse-majesté law, the toughest on the planet, to suppress all discussion of the issue. Under its provisions, criticism of the king, the queen, the crown prince, the regent, royal development projects, the royal institution, the Chakri Dynasty, or any kin of the king are prohibited. That has effectively shut down any discussion of anything having to do with the royal family in the press.

Thus the reasons for the arrests of Vajiralongkorn’s allies on the police force remain unknown. But one thing is clear. It probably doesn’t signal a wider cleanup of the police. Vajiralongkorn reportedly has abandoned Thaksin to make common cause with Prayuth and the military in return for the junta’s support to become king.

“Real reform would require a total overhaul of the police system in Thailand as the force is built on corruption,” said a longtime expatriate businessman. “It is compulsory from the first month a recruit joins the force. If you see any deep systemic reforms being undertaken, then that is a reason to be optimistic. The arrest of a few officers out of thousands does not have much significance.”

That said, the authorities apparently have made an amazing haul in the arrest including assets worth up to Bt10 billion (US$306.8 million) in cash, gold, land deeds, Buddhist amulets and antiques.

According to local media, the suspects allegedly used claims of ties to the palace in perpetrating their crimes, but Somyot declined to elaborate on the charges of lese majeste, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.

The seven arrested with Pongpat are the deputy chief of the investigation bureau, the head of the Marine Police, an official with the Consumer Protection Police Division and two others as well as Pongpat’s driver.

It was a long fall for Pongpat, who appeared before reporters, escorted by police officers, clad in a T-shirt. Prior to taking over the central intelligence unit, he acquired a reputation as a crimebuster, according to local media, and held several high-profile positions including at the top of the Crime Suppression Division.