Thailand’s Enduringly Crooked Police

It is a ritual that has gone on for decades. At the beginning of each month, when the average brown-shirted Thai cop’s household bills come due, long lines of motorcyclists form at freeway underpasses in Bangkok while their riders endure shakedowns for real or imagined traffic violations.

While there are hugely controversial cases involving the Royal Thai Police – including, for instance, the famed Blue Diamond Affair, in which Thai police recovered a vast store of jewels stolen from the royal house of Saud in Saudi Arabia by a Thai janitor and tried to give back fake ones, mostly the cases are small, banal and everyday. The shakedowns of the motorists are emblematic of the fact that almost any encounter with a Thai policeman is likely to be disastrous, whether or not the person contacting the police is a victim or even sometimes a witness. Thailand’s police force is incompetent. It is also corrupt and brutal. Reporting a burglary is too often a license for a policeman to loot the victim’s home.

The junta headed by Prayuth Chan-ocha that took power in Thailand via a coup on May 22 has vowed to reform the police force, which according to several surveys is the country’s least-trusted public institution. But the question is whether it is real reform, or whether it is a more likely a method of getting rid of forces aligned with the fugitive billionaire and onetime prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The police have long been viewed as aligned with Thaksin – a onetime police officer himself – going back to his disgraceful “war on drugs” that resulted in the killings of 2,500 individuals without trial during the early part of Thaksin’s premiership. Because of their perceived favoritism to the Red Shirt protesters who formed Thaksin’s vanguard, the police became known as “tomatoes” from a belief on the part of the citizenry that they were red on the inside, according to Khaemthong Tonsalkulrungruang, a constitutional law scholar writing in New Mandala.

But almost immediately after the junta took power, the police appear to have switched sides and thrown their loyalty behind the new administration, making any deep effort for reform unlikely. The junta, Khaemthong writes, seemingly has gone along with the switch. When the police threatened to prosecute anyone who supposedly defamed them over their badly botched investigation of the brutal murder of two British backpacker tourists on Koh Tao island on Sept. 15, the junta remained silent. A month and a half later, the crime remains unsolved and there are widespread suspicions that the police beat their two Burmese captives into a fraudulent confession.

Indeed, the appointment of Somyot Poompanmoung as the country's new national police chief has done little to inspire confidence. The fact that he and his wife were recently found to possess Bt355.8 million (US$10.9 million) in assets has done little to dispel that suspicion. The deputy national police chief, Jakthip Chaijinda, and his wife together have a net worth of even more, at Bt962 million.

If there has been any real reform, sources in Bangkok say, it hasn’t shown up on the streets, with Somyot apparently devoting most of his energies to going after alleged lese-majeste offenders. While a new seniority system for promotions has been put in place, with promotions supposedly less dependent upon the recommendations of politicians, it remains to be seen if it will work. The extent to which entertainment owners, vendors, and people making a living on the margin are forced to pay protection to cops has yet to be ascertained, but it is assumed that protection is continuing, if only because the culture is so deeply ingrained, with the takings divided up among all members of the force. Everyone is in on the game to the point that most don’t regard it as corruption.

“The junta’s reform of the police and justice system will be a litmus test of whether or not Thailand is going to see real reform, or superficial reform leaving the dysfunctional hierarchical society in place,” said a western businessman. “It is the hierarchical society and the lack of a rule of law that is at the heart of problems in this country. People with sufficient status are treated very well by the police.”

Although attention has been focused on the Thai police because of the backpackers’ murders, it is the daily grind that defines the society, of the average Thai citizen who with good reason tries to stay as far away as possible from an encounter with a cop. In addition, the hierarchical nature of the society means that anyone with a social station higher than the policeman is going to get off.

Migrant workers have taken a particular beating, according to Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “Thailand's police have a long and well documented history of abusing migrant workers from neighboring countries and despite repeated exposes, the enjoy virtually total impunity to do so,” Robertson said In an exhaustive report issued last year, “ Human Rights Watch has documented migrant workers being tortured, extorted, sexually abused, and in some cases, killed by police and other local authorities. No wonder then that migrant workers learn to keep their heads down and run fast at the sign of any trouble or disturbances because they know if something goes wrong, the weight of the law is likely to come down most heavily on them."

The junta’s approach to trying to rid the police of the bribe culture has been unique indeed. Police Major General Adul Narongsak, deputy chief of the Metropolitan Police Bureau, told reporters in mid-October that the police would pay rewards to policemen who turned down backhanders. Two cops were recently paid Bt10,000 for refusing a US$3 bribe. If that seems bizarre economics, it is.

According to the World Bank’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 456 charges criminal actions were filed against Royal Thai Police officers in the seven months from January to August 2013. There were 4,760 internal investigations of official misconduct conducted from October 2011 through September 2012.

“You have to ask what is and is not being “reformed,” a Thai source told Asia Sentinel. “That will tell us whether or not this regime is crowd-pleasing, or working to genuinely improve the nation. Are there indications in the police leadership reshuffle that there will be real change in this, Thailand’s most corrupt institution, or is it just putting politically reliable people in the top places, replacing Thaksin loyalists?”

That test also involves clearing up cases that involve people of power and influence, which will be difficult indeed. As an indication that the junta probably isn’t going to upset any applecarts, the government has made no effort to bring to justice police and military personnel responsible for the deaths of scores of protesters in the district of Tak Bai in the south of the country in 2004.

Seven Malay Muslim protesters were shot to death in the incident, following which police and army personnel loaded protesters onto a truck, whereupon 78 suffocated or were crushed to death while being transported to an army camp in Pattani province. Thailand’s supreme court later ruled that security personnel were blameless because they were only performing their duties.

“Thailand’s failure to prosecute security personnel responsible for the Tak Bai killings is a glaring injustice that brings the police, military, and courts into disrepute,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Thai authorities’ failure to deliver justice to southern Muslims has fueled conditions for the insurgency in the deep south.”