THAILAND: Police reforms without public participation or constitutional law are meaningless

The interim prime minister of Thailand, General Surayud Chulanont, has in recent days insisted that he will push ahead a raft of reforms to policing in Thailand. Two bills passed by his military-approved cabinet are to amend the 2004 Police Act and also allow for an independent complaints procedure on policing, something recommended to the government by the UN Human Rights Committee back in 2005. Among other things, the amended act is set to decentralise police command, increasing the power of regional commanders, as well as to offer pay rises and career incentives for personnel.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has for a number of years stressed the need for serious effort to reform policing in Thailand. It has issued literally hundreds of appeals documenting cases of killing, torture, abduction and other forms of gross abuse committed by the police force there, as well as the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators. Together with its sister organisation, the Asian Legal Resource Centre, it has released a number of detailed publications in Thai and English that speak to specific problems of policing in Thailand, and has made many detailed recommendations for reform in areas of witness protection, forensic science, corruption, domestic law and the role of the public prosecution and courts.

Yet the AHRC does not have a strong interest in the current proposed reforms. The reason is that they will not succeed. And they will not succeed for many reasons, not simply because of the inevitable intransigence of senior police.

One of the most important reasons that the reforms will not work is that not only the police but the public have no conviction that they will. Reforming an entire police force is an enormously difficult task for any society, not least of all one where it has heavy entrenched power at all levels and has been built upon corruption and self-financing, and it is one that can only succeed through strong and active public involvement and backing. The police will naturally be opposed to anything that makes them more accountable or subject to outside control, but where the public is the driving force behind change and is unprepared to tolerate their excesses any longer then it becomes more difficult for them to resist.

The experience of Hong Kong in reforming a much smaller and less powerful force than that in Thailand is informative. In the 1960s the Hong Kong police had unparalleled power and influence, and were enormously corrupt: they were involved in all areas of crime in the territory, including illicit trading in drugs, gambling and prostitution. In the early 1970s the public rallied and demanded change after a senior officer fled with millions of dollars obtained through illegal activities. He was extradited and jailed. In the process, the Independent Commission Against Corruption was set up, with the police force as its first target. In its early days the commission’s headquarters was literally surrounded and stormed by outraged police, forcing it to reach a compromise on prosecutions of many officers. And in 1977 its investigations provoked a mass police walkout. In different circumstances, such incidents may have been enough to kill off or severely weaken this important fledgling agency. However, the critical element was the public interest: the people of Hong Kong were not prepared to go back to the old days. They would no longer accept that policing had to be corrupt and contrary to their interests. With overwhelming support, constant media attention and intense pressure from all quarters, reforms ultimately proved a success; today Hong Kong has one of the most efficient and law-abiding police forces in Asia.  

By contrast, in Thailand there is no evidence of public support for the proposed police reforms at all. This is in large part because the participation of ordinary persons there in matters affecting their day to day lives–other than contrived participation for the purposes of the regime’s propaganda–has been suspended since the September 19 coup of last year. The proposed reforms have been authored by a short-term unelected government, and are tacitly backed by the armed forces, which have since the day they resumed control of the country sought to clip the wings of the police, which had grown too large for their liking under the former administration. Thus, there is no widespread conviction in the proposed reforms, or strong public interest in seeing them implemented.

Another reason that the reforms will fail is that they consist largely of generic solutions that fail to address the real problems. Decentralisation of policing may be a good idea in principle but in Thailand it may prove to be highly regressive. The police in Thailand had their origins as a decentralised force. Local governors organised and used units as their personal security and paramilitary forces. Over time power became concentrated in Bangkok in order to diminish the control of governors, local politicians and others over the police. Thus, the capacity of national-level politicians, including the former prime minister–himself once a police officer–to influence and control the police increased, without really rubbing out the influence of local authorities. The current proposal may well end in a reversion to the earlier model of locally politicised police, rather than nationally politicised ones, and no change in the overall level of influence and corruption.

The AHRC has said before and will reiterate that the real issue for the police in Thailand is command responsibility. The notion that superior officers should be held fully accountable for the wrongdoing of subordinates has not yet entered into the system of policing in Thailand in any significant way. On the contrary, command responsibility there is understood largely as senior officers defending their subordinates against allegations of wrongdoing, even in the most absurd circumstances: such as when a police station commander sued a senior forensic scientist for implying that his men had shot and killed someone illegally. There is no way that the problem of command responsibility will be addressed through the current proposed reforms, under the current interim government, and nor does it appear to be given the weight that it deserves by any concerned agencies, including United Nations bodies.

Ultimately, the reforms will fail because today Thailand is fundamentally lawless. By scrapping the 1997 Constitution and pursuing a farcical alternative, the military has made amply clear that constitutions are of little value other than as some obligatory window dressing. By implication, all the laws of the country, which are established under the constitution, are of limited worth, compared to that authority obtained by the barrel of the gun. This message is being reinforced by the throwing together of loose assemblages of regulations and orders, labelled ‘law’, to entitle the military to do anything it likes for as long as it wishes–and order the police or any other government agencies to do anything at its behest–most recently in the form of the new draft national security act. Thus when on the one hand there are new provisions to control the authority of the police on the other the army is being freed from any controls whatsoever.

The implications of the coup are not yet fully understood by most persons in Thailand, which is hardly surprising given that open discussion has been stifled by a heavy blanket of propaganda and intimidation, political party activities remain prohibited, and martial law is still in effect across over half the country. However, over time it will become obvious to more and more persons that their country has been set back many decades since last September, and that the armed forces has both the capacity and intent to cause far greater damage to institutions of justice and parliament than anything that could have been achieved by the abusive civilian regime that they removed. Within this setting, the proposed police reforms of the interim prime minister are trivial, meaningless and irrelevant, other than that they make matters worse than they already are, by increasing animosity between different parts of the state apparatus and forcing officers to participate in pretended improvements in which they have no genuine commitment, the public has no significant involvement, and notions of constitutionalism and the rule of law are altogether absent.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-159-2007
Countries : Thailand,