This post is part of New Mandala’s Thai institutions series. The first post in this series (Archives) is available here and the second (Unions) is here.

An article from Economist magazine about the Thai police begins by highlighting a list of abuses including excessive use of force, extortion, cronyism, and torture. It then notes that most Thais hold a negative view of the force. The article appeared in April 2008, but it could have been yesterday, or 1960 or even 1930.

To wit, an editorial on the police in the Krungthep Daily Mail from 1928 claims Thais saw the force as an enemy more than as a friend. This came amidst a tenacious campaign to expose a human smuggling and prostitution ring run by officers in the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch, a precursor of today’s Santiban.

Thais, however, did not always loathe the police. In the years after 1860, when King Mongkut established the metropolitan constabulary, people saw them as something of a novelty. Locals in Samphaeng, where the unit began, made its Indian and Malay beat cops, outfitted in long-coats and high-helmets, victims of pranks and the butt of jokes.

By the turn of the twentieth century, crime was no laughing matter and the government found itself under pressure domestically and from the British and French to get a handle on the growing number of increasingly violent crimes. By the police’s own accounts, the kingdom’s murder rate doubled over the first six years of the 1910s.

To address the crisis, the government pushed through a series of reforms. Some measures aimed to bolster the size of the force, which grew from about 4,000 in 1904 to roughly 200,000 (including a 60,000-strong support staff) in 1994. Other measures sought to expand the police’s responsibilities.

In the early years, the police were tasked with suppressing crime – making arrests and maintaining order. They lacked even the power to question suspects. That duty fell under the purview of local civilian officials. Their broad mandate to ‘protect the peace,’ however, took them soon into fields far removed from the streets of Chinatown.

As early as the late 1890s, the police were drawn into the vice trade, registering pawnshops and prostitutes. Around the time of the 1932 revolution, they began monitoring the press, especially for political news. Today the police control traffic, borders, entertainment venues, and media outlets. It, as an institution, marks the presence of the state more tangibly than just about any other technology of administration.

To appreciate the police’s impact on everyday life, then, one must view it in relation to other institutions and to broader social processes. For in addition to growing physically, the police have gained, partly by chance, a foothold in the social imagination through print, broadcast, and streamed spectacles of law and death. Their investigative practices, arrests and seizures, and reenactments violent crimes have evolved into an addictive lakhon of legal procedure, science, and blood letting. It is almost impossible to imagine crime, violence, and the state without recourse to the tropes developed by the police and presented daily in the popular media.

A 1998 FEER report, for example, described a drug bust in Suphanburi intentionally conducted under “the gaze of scores of reporters and cameramen.” Despite the glare, the police felt no qualms about shooting (off-camera but within earshot) six suspects dead, all of whom were handcuffed. Sanoh Thienthong, then Minister of Interior, said afterwards that the suspects deserved to die.

After years of socialization through the media, Sanoh’s comments may represent public opinion more accurately than one might care to admit. Indeed, FEER claimed Thais were more alarmed by the police’s cavalier attitude than with the killings themselves. Summary justice is, after all, still justice, something in short supply in a judicial system many see as stacked against the accused. There is, then, a certain ambivalence: Thais detest the police’s heavy-handed tactics yet are drawn to the spectacle of modern policing.

At issue, therefore, when people call for reform is a history of excess, malfeasance, and resistance to change. It is also a tacit recognition that by entrenching themselves in daily life, the police have introduced new types of violence and instability into a public sphere they helped produce. To ‘fix’ this problem will require something beyond ‘professionalization’ and ‘transparency,’ for the police is in many ways already both.

What does this signal for the future?

Governments have come and gone. The police have been restructured several times, with varying results. Through it all, they have become rather impervious to outside pressure for change. The Economist article cited at the outset acknowledges this, stating, “Police reforms elsewhere have generally succeeded only where a public-spirited and untainted political leadership forced them through. When will Thailand get that sort of leadership?”

From the discussion above, perhaps the only real hope for a less intrusive, more community-minded force resides in loosening the tangled grip that the police’s tentacles have developed over daily life and the public imagination, an understandably minor item on the more pressing agendas of government representatives in today’s politically uncertain environment. It is however, one that will prove just as important in the long run for prospects for establishing a just and fair society.

Samson Lim is a doctoral candidate at Cornell University