According to several public surveys, the Royal Thai Police is the least trusted government agency. Its notoriety derives from its rogue behavior. Stories of scapegoats and extrajudicial killings are as common as bribery and extortion. The force is plagued with corruption. In addition to their “bad service,” the Thai public also associates the Police Force with the Shinawatra regime. A situation that led to the regime’s deteriorating legitimacy which ultimately resulted in coup d’états and the collapse of democracy.
The police have always shown strong affiliation to Thaksin and his men. They were responsible for the disappearance and assassination of innocent people wrongly accused during the war on narcotic drugs. During the early stages of the southern conflict, policemen abducted and murdered Somchai Neelapaichit, a human rights lawyer advocating for the rights of Muslim suspects. The two incidents tainted Thaksin’s administration with human rights violations.
Later, over years of protests, the police were always chosen as the main force to crack down on anti-Thaksin demonstrations. The crackdown in October 2008 resulted in one protester’s death. The Yellow Shirts believed that the police had used low quality teargas grenades or intentionally aimed at the victim, impressions that fuelled hatred of the force. In 2013, not only did the police guard the government building against the PDRC protesters, but they also seemed reluctant to investigate several incidents of grenade attacks on the PDRC. A high-ranking officer even warned the protesters to go back home because the police could not guarantee their safety. In contrast, during the massive Red Shirt protest in 2010, the main site was right in front of the Royal Thai Police Headquarters, after which the police were censured by the public for taking no action against the occupation, and indeed, for even providing protection for Red Shirt protesters, many of whom were related to police officers. Moreover, when Akkayut Unchanbutr, an outspoken critic of Thaksin, was murdered by his driver earlier last year, many people believed that the case was set up to intimidate Thaksin’s enemies.
As a result, the police have become a symbol of Thaksin’s influence in Thailand. In recent years, they have become the main target of abuse by anti-Thaksin activists, which has included incidents of name-calling, assault, humiliation, and vandalism of properties. The police have been dubbed “Thaksin’s dog” and the “tomato police” for their allegiance to the Red Shirt movement. With the 2014 coup d’état and the junta’s promises of comprehensive corruption reform, the public expected the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to discipline this notorious pet of Thaksin and revamp the institution. But incidents in recent months have cast doubt on such claims.
Overnight the police switched sides to serve the new master. They collaborated with the NCPO to silence critics of the coup d’état. One program offered a reward of 500 THB for tips on Facebook comments that criticised the military. Although there was no evidence that the reward has ever been paid, the existence of the program was enough to spark public anger.
Two of the most recent incidents have only worsened the reputation of the Thai Royal Police. First, the police arrested five “men in black” who had been involved in protecting Red Shirt protesters and attacking the army during a protest in April 2010. Although such “men in black” undoubtedly exist, the five suspects might be convenient scapegoats. Some of them disappeared a few days prior to the issue of arrest warrants. Many believed the police detained them without notifying relatives before obtaining the legal permission to make arrests. Later the police claimed that the five men were hired by Kritsuda Sanasen, the Red Shirt activist who is now seeking asylum abroad for disclosing details of the military’s abuses. However, the conclusion seems absurd because Kritsuda, at that time, would have been merely a college sophomore. The evidence was so complete that it seems fabricated. The police claim they hold documents of Kritsuda’s money transfers to each militant. Why would a mastermind of a militia keep her paperwork so well for four years?
The second incident is the murder of two British travelers. With much conflicting evidence and stories of torture, the two Burmese migrant workers accused were likely just scapegoats. Facing criticism, the police threatened to persecute anyone who defames them.
Despite the obvious injustice, the junta did not say a word. Perhaps in their view, the police are doing a good job. Prayuth needs someone to do the dirty work of intimidating and suppressing dissidents. Thus, the police might have to sacrifice some unfortunate souls as well as a little bit of the rule of law for the greater good of the country. In other words, Prayuth is following in Thaksin’s footstep by using the police as a political weapon. Compared to the abuses of the police, perhaps the actions of the junta may even appear more reasonable to communities within Thailand and internationally. At this moment, the police problem does not seem to be a big deal since the police are no longer serving Thaksin. Instead, they try to please the junta by diligently going after Thaksin’s people.
The situation cannot continue like this forever. The police are supposed to perform the basic function of peace keeping in the society. The Royal Thai Police may not deliberately recruit bandits, but years of neglect have produced gangsters in uniform. An officer works long stressful hours for too little reward. Promotion depends on political connections or bribes offered to superiors. Policemen need more reasonable salary with stronger accountability mechanism as well as better merit system.
Those old mafias should be uprooted. Unfortunately the junta does not have incentive to do so, at least for now. The junta might later delegate the reform task to the newly appointed National Reform Council. But the fact that the junta is giving a nod to the police’s failures implies a lack of sincerity or strong will to change, without which reform is almost impossible. Without a serious overhaul, the police force will remain a dangerous tool for governments, elected or not, to use against their people’s rights and the rule of law. This perfectly sets the stage for the next round of conflict.
Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang is a constitutional law scholar in Thailand.