Thai police graft highlights bigger issues
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Thai police graft highlights bigger issues


National police chief Pol Gen Torsak Sukvimol, left, and his deputy, Pol Gen Surachate Hakparn, are seen on March 20 after they were ordered to be transferred to the PM's Office. (Photo: Nutthawat Wichieanbut)
National police chief Pol Gen Torsak Sukvimol, left, and his deputy, Pol Gen Surachate Hakparn, are seen on March 20 after they were ordered to be transferred to the PM's Office. (Photo: Nutthawat Wichieanbut)

There is no bigger news on the current Thai political scene than corruption among the top echelons of the police force. At issue is the tussle between Thailand's two senior-most cops, Pol Gen Surachate Hakparn and Pol Gen Torsak Sukvimol, both accusing each other of being on the take. Their high-stakes feud would normally be a run-of-the-mill story for the infamously shady Thai police but this case has become a mirror and microcosm of structural graft that is corroding the highest corridors of politics, economy, and society.

As the Torsak-Surachate feud has played out in news headlines in recent weeks, it has become clear that Thailand risks becoming an extractive economy at the mercy of powerful interests to reap rent-seeking opportunities at will. Whichever part of the economy the light of transparency shines through, there appears to be undue and unscrupulous rents. Graft is a blatant form of rent-seeking, but monopolistic conduct among the largest local companies also benefits from rent. As rent-seeking proliferates without boundaries, the economy will stagnate as society becomes more decayed and decadent.

The Torsak-Surachate conflict is instructive. Each alleges the other is corrupt. To contain the fallout from public anger and demands for accountability, Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, the nominal head of the police force, has suspended both generals while investigations take place.

Pol Gen Surachate, a deputy national police chief popularly referred to by his nickname as "Big Joke", is accused of having overseen and collecting commissions from an illegal online gambling scheme known as "BNK Master". Accusations and moves within the police force against Pol Gen Surachate have been on and off over the past decade as he rose up the ranks while benefiting from the patronage of powerful individuals, particularly Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, a mastermind of the military coup in May 2014. As a senior-most general and deputy police chief with seven years left before mandatory retirement, Big Joke is poised to take over the helm in a year or two with a relatively long tenure.

With "Big Tor" as his moniker, Pol Gen Torsak Sukvimol has been the national police chief since October until his recent suspension pending investigation. Because of their outsized and meddling role in politics, military and police generals are often given the "Big" prefix to their nicknames. As Big Joke deemed the moves against him that could result in his termination emanating from Big Tor's camp, he wanted to go down with all guns blazing. From nowhere emerged lawyer-activist Sittra Biabangkerd who publicly laid out an apparent money trail that allegedly links Big Tor to racketeering and graft amounting to more than 800 million baht and involving some 18 business groups. It so happens that Big Tor, who faces mandatory retirement this year, is the younger brother of His Majesty's Principal Private Secretary Air Chief Marshal Satitpong Sukvimol.

The daily jousting on the national news between the two sides now focuses on which agency has jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute. Big Joke is being hounded on money-laundering charges with the police conducting its own probe, but he views his case to be a corruption case and, therefore, under the domain of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, whose members were appointed during the coup period in 2014-19 under Gen Prawit's watch. According to the police's norms and customs, national police chiefs have almost invariably been graduates of the police academy. Big Joke, also an academy graduate, was fast-tracked to his four-star position during the coup period. A university rather than police academy graduate, Big Tor's career track was also accelerated, rising from a two-star general in charge of royal protection to a full general and national police chief in less than six years, thanks to former prime minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha.

It is here that the police rot is a larger worry for the country. The Thai police have long been politicised and scandalised, most memorably with the case of the missing Saudi jewels and consequent murders from three decades ago. But now the police's patronage structure is breaking alarming new ground. Pol Gen Surachate capitalised on his patron-client ties with a top general who co-staged the 2014 coup and had also catered to another senior palace figure who has lost the spotlight in the past few years. Would Pol Gen Torsak have not got this far alone by himself?

Connections always counted for Thai police promotions but performance also mattered. The ratio might have been 20-80 to 50-50 in decades past but networks and patrons now determine the outcomes almost entirely. This is bad for police morale and provides disincentives for policemen to do their job right. When the first tier of law enforcement is corroded, ahead of prosecutors and judges, the legal system is doomed.

To be sure, police corruption is not uncommon across countries. But Thailand's case has become more entrenched than ever, institutionalised with regularity and impunity. It fosters an extractive state whereby vested interests become parasitic, collecting rents wherever they can and disregarding the need to grow the economic pie for the future. It stymies and prevents the strengthening of democratic institutions and the rule of law.

Police corruption lurks in myriad underground, grey areas. It is a matter of what gets exposed and prosecuted. The Surachate-Torsak conflict is illustrative of other areas of police graft. Highway lorries are known to have to pay for police-endorsed "stickers" to ply the roads with excess weight without being stopped and charged. Yet, in a broader context, what's happening in Thailand's police force is an indictment of what's wrong with the country powerful connections and rents are crowding out talent and integrity.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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