To reform police, let's start with the military

To reform police, let's start with the military

Police reform was a key promise of the military coup chief, but in fact the real reform must start from the top, with the military. (File photo)
Police reform was a key promise of the military coup chief, but in fact the real reform must start from the top, with the military. (File photo)

The Thai police are not in a good mood these days, not after finding unflattering headlines about them plastered around.

A Facebook post by former veteran politician Arthit Ourairat last May alleged the widespread practice among officers of paying for promotions.

Senior police officers feigned outrage and threatened to charge Mr Arthit with defamation.

Then a couple months later, media reports about a police captain's complaint against a fellow captain over fraud had the effect of quieting them down. The policeman alleged that he paid 700,000 baht to another captain with the understanding that he would be promoted to inspector.

Wasant Techawongtham is former News Editor, Bangkok Post.

Both incidents soon faded from the media's attention and went into the file of cases that are better forgotten.

The recent scandal involving cheating in the police entrance exam put another dark stain on the police's image. People may ask why anyone would pay up to 500,000 baht for an entry position in the police force. But that's just a rhetorical question.

Of more concern is the case of alleged wrongful imprisonment of a teacher from Sakon Nakhon for a hit-and-run incident resulting in a death. The teacher, Jomsap Saenmuangkhot, who was jailed for one and a half years, later petitioned the court for a retrial.

A retrial, if successful, would expose serious flaws in the entire justice system and shine a spotlight on the police's investigative competencies.

This is not to mention police involvement in various shady and criminal activities, both past and present.

It can be said that scandal has been the Thai police's middle name ever since its inception as a modern force in the early 1930s. There have been numerous calls for police reforms, and these have become increasingly insistent up until the latest coup in 2014.

In opinion polls gauging the popularity of public agencies, the police almost always come up on top in the negative columns.

To many people, the word police is synonymous with corruption. Whatever the police do, they expect some kind of illicit payment.

The police chief himself, Pol Gen Chakthip Chaijinda, admitted to the media that the police have a serious credibility problem. "Policing is a profession that has very low social capital," he said.

Public perception of rampant corruption in the police force can hardly be denied. On an online forum, a police investigator related a case where he wrote a recommendation that the case be closed because the accused was deceased.

The station chief, not bothering to read the details, asked: "Where's the envelope [of cash]?"

When told that the accused had died and so there was no envelope, he became annoyed and lashed out at his subordinate.

In fairness, corruption has plagued all public agencies, not just the police department, and who can say which is the most corrupt?

The reason the police are perceived as the most corrupt is probably because the nature of their work puts them constantly in close contact with the public and therefore their undertakings are more visible.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had promised to make police reform a priority when he took power. Well, that was nearly three years ago, and nothing has materialised.

It's not that surprising, really. Historically, the police have been exploited by governments of all stripes to do their dubious biddings, some of which are downright criminal.

The military junta are now the government. It would not be out of the ordinary if they found the police to be a useful tool. Why initiate actions that may antagonise the police establishment? Why muddy up the waters, so to speak?

And that's just fine with the top police officers, who offer lip service to reform but are generally opposed to any major restructuring of their department.

But it's not fine with the people and police officers who work honestly.

It may be hard to believe but there actually are good and honest people in the police force. However, organisational culture ensures that they belong decidedly in a small minority.

These are professionals who uphold the police principle of serving the public without resorting to bribes or extortion and still survive against all odds.

The pressure they have to silently endure is tremendous. On top of the usual pressures of work, they must sacrifice their career advancement because they are seen as non-conformist. In many instances, they must endure the humiliation of taking orders from their contemporaries who have found a rapid means to climb the organisational ladder.

Reform would have served justice to these professionals and society at large. Sadly, it is unlikely to happen under the current system.

What would happen if, after police reforms, people started to demand reforms in the military?

And who can confidently say the military is any less corrupt? The military is probably the least transparent and accountable organisation in the entire bureaucracy. It is inscrutable and refuses to be scrutinised. Any shady activities are therefore kept under wraps away from the public's eyes.

So shouldn't genuine reform begin with the military?

Wasant Techawongtham is a former News Editor, Bangkok Post.

Wasant Techawongtham

Freelance Reporter

Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.

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