In recent weeks, a couple of criminal cases involving police officers in Thailand have caught the media headlines there.
In the first, three men were found shot dead in Ayutthaya Province, just north of Bangkok, apparently after they had been arrested by the police. The three, Akkharapol “Bank” Sampao, 22; Mongkol Yatra, 20, and Nakhon Kwaenkhetgun, 18, were wanted for the killing of three officers in a shootout on December 31 when police had come to arrest Akkhrapol at a relative’s home. Akkharapol’s family had negotiated with the police for their surrender, and had made a deal that they would hand themselves over at Ban Nong Lai in Phetchabun on January 9. Instead, the three men disappeared suddenly from a restaurant in Phetchabun that day and were found dead, all shot in the back, on a road in Uthai district the following morning. The police claim to know nothing and say that it was a case of “killing to cut the link” between criminals; the family believes that it was revenge.
In the second, eight Border Patrol Police have been arrested for allegedly abducting and torturing people for ransom and in order to fabricate cases. The police had brought their victims to Bangkok and held them in an apartment there. They were arrested after a woman whom they had held with her children reported what had happened to her. At least another five officers are wanted over the case and the alleged ringleader, Pol. Capt. Nat Chonnithiwanit, has reportedly defended himself by saying that he was only doing his job and that senior officers knew of his unit’s activities.
After hearing this news, other victims also came forward, including a couple being held awaiting trial on drugs charges who also claimed to have been abducted and set up by the unit. According to them, they had seen around twenty people being held in a bungalow in Surat Thani, some of whom had been assaulted and tortured; others were hooded. Another has complained that she was arrested last February and electrocuted while pregnant to force a confession also on drugs charges. She maintained her innocence and was acquitted in October, although she was kept in prison during that time and gave birth to her child behind bars.
While these cases have caught headlines in Thailand, they do not come as a surprise to people there who know all too well the behaviour and characteristics of their police force. These are not “rogue” cops, as described by one Bangkok newspaper. On the contrary, they are an inevitable outcome of a deliberately dysfunctional policing system that has made life a misery and human rights a mockery for countless numbers of people in Thailand over many decades.
The Asian Human Rights Commission has for some years researched and advocated on criminal justice issues in Thailand. It has time and again pointed out that human rights abuse there is a consequence of systemic corruption and politicisation; lack of disciplinary controls; inadequate witness protection; the absence of independent and reliable bodies to receive complaints, investigate and prosecute officers for wrongdoing, and the incapacity and unwillingness of the courts and other state agencies to challenge police authority.
None of this is anything new. The police force that exists in Thailand today is for all intents and purposes the same one that was built by Pol. Gen. Phao Sriyanond in the 1950s. Phao, a former army general who was one of three powerful figures in the military government that emerged after a coup in 1947, saw control of the police as his personal means to power and fortune. Under him the police force was increased in size and strength to become a de facto parallel army. It took on paramilitary functions through new special units, including the border police. It ran the drug trade, carried out abductions and killings with impunity, and was used as a political base for Phao and his associates.
Successive attempts to reform the police, particularly from the 1970s onwards, have all met with failure despite almost universal acknowledgment that something must be done. As politicians and their backers are dependent upon the police for their survival, they are chary to push for changes that they inevitably meet with serious resistance from within the force. And under the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, himself a former police colonel, police were elevated to new levels of authority in all parts of government. Although the subsequent military regime stripped them of these positions, the attempt of its caretaker prime minister to push through a new raft of structural and legal changes to the force was predictably unsuccessful.
Systemic change is nowhere easy. But the attitude that nothing can be done also is wrong. Although the police of 2008 are in many respects still the children and grandchildren of Pol. Gen. Phao, the society in which they are operating is not at all the same one as existed half a century ago. People in Thailand are today more aware and less tolerant of the sorts of excesses that have been committed by state agents pretending to act in their name for the last few generations. They are more determined to make themselves heard and insist upon their rights, contrary to the intentions of the military and bureaucratic elite. This groundswell for change was, more than any specific threats to traditional control posed by the Thaksin regime, the cause of the 2006 coup and subsequent reversals of political and legal freedoms under the army’s watch.
Deep distrust of popular opinion and public action independent of state directives is what continues to restrain Thailand not only politically but also in terms of prospects for improved human rights and the rule of law. It is what makes the sort of police abuses reported in recent weeks not only likely but certain. It is also certain that if there is going to be lasting systemic change to policing in Thailand it can only be accompanied by dramatic change in other parts of social and political life.
While the next few years will be revealing of the extent to which such change may become possible any time soon, the Asian Human Rights Commission meanwhile urges that in the abovementioned cases all the police accused of wrongdoing be detained without bail pending criminal trial and that a special independent inquiry be established to examine, particularly in the case of the Border Patrol Police unit, the extent to which senior officers were complicit. It urges that the victims and witnesses be protected in accordance with the Witness Protection Act of 2003 and be given compensation in accordance with the Compensation for Victims of Crime Act of 2001.
The AHRC also calls upon the new government of Thailand to adopt a law to prohibit torture in accordance with the country’s obligations under the UN Convention against Torture, as well as implement the specific recommendations that the UN Human Rights Committee made to it in 2005 on its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that it establish an independent civilian body to investigate complaints filed against law enforcement officials and ensure that there be prompt and effective remedies to allow detainees to challenge the legality of their detention.
Finally, it calls on concerned human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and other concerned persons in Thailand and abroad to take up and closely follow these cases, not only with reference to the specific individual allegations but also in order to further develop sorely needed detailed critiques of the entrenched character of gross human rights abuse in Thailand’s criminal justice institutions so that we can at last go beyond simplistic descriptions of rogue police and into the real issues of a rogue system.