Police needs lessons from Georgia
The news barely made the papers - investigating officers in Kaeng Krachan district of Phetchaburi had decided to drop charges against a police officer for illegal poaching in a national park, a small story for the back pages that probably would have gone unnoticed had some outraged readers not posted it on social media.
All of a sudden the news went viral, the public furious at the brazenness displayed by police officers who were seen as attempting to help one of their own.
The investigated officer, Lt Col Thirayuth Ketmangmee, was arrested with eight others deep in the jungles of Kaeng Krachan National Park last November.
But in a move for which so far there has been no clear explanation, he was let go after paying a 1,000-baht fine to park officials for unlawful entry.
Only later did park authorities file additional charges, including illegal wildlife poaching, against him. Investigators nevertheless ignored photographic evidence against Lt Col Thirayuth supplied by park officials, including one photo where the officer and the other suspects were eating what looked like wild meat in the jungle.
Accusations of corruption and abuse of power are nothing new for the police force. Just in the past few months, several policemen have been implicated in a range of criminal activities, from drug trafficking to illegal logging, from human trafficking of Rohingya to robberies.
Such news is often greeted by the public with a shake of the head. People have heard this kind of news too many times already. The public do not expect policemen to be any more law-abiding than ordinary people. In fact, many people have such a low level of respect for the police that they call them "legally sanctioned criminals".
Considering that the job offers obscenely low pay for such hazardous work, a surfeit of applicants still want to enter the force, even if it involves paying large sums of money to people to help them cheat their way into being admitted into the police academy. And once they are in, even more money is needed to secure promotions.
Is it any wonder many officers resort to demanding bribes every chance they get, given the expenses involved in getting to where they are?
The public's lack of respect toward the police force has been widely acknowledged in public opinion polls, research papers and official reports. There have been several attempts in the past to rehabilitate or reform the force, but none ever came close to effecting real change.
The last attempt was made during the coup-sponsored government of Gen Surayud Chulanont, which established a committee to look into the issue. The committee's work was continued by the next government under Abhisit Vejjajiva.
But under the present Yingluck Shinawatra government, this committee has been left to die the quiet death experienced by many that came before it.
The committee had identified 10 issues critical for reforming the force.
They were devolution of personnel administration; public participation; police performance monitoring; transfer of non-police duties to other agencies; police pay and welfare; improving police investigations; making police stations function better; personnel development; promoting low-level personnel; and creating an agency to develop the process of dispensing justice.
We can readily agree that all the issues identified here require serious attention. However, critics will point out the most important issues are not on the list.
The most important of these, and the most difficult one to tackle, is transforming the culture of the force and its people. The force has been used as a political tool since it was established, and officers have taken it for granted that their job is to serve their political masters over and above the public.
This point was clearly demonstrated when Pol Lt Gen Khamronwit Thoopkrachang was appointed Bangkok police chief last year. On the wall in his office is a framed photo of him being decorated with his new rank insignia by fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. A sign nearby declared "I have this day because of you" _ an obvious reference to the gratitude Pol Lt Gen Khamronwit feels toward Thaksin for his rise in the police ranks.
Another core belief among the force is that as brothers in arms they have to help one another in times of trouble, no matter what. This belief becomes self-reinforcing as the public image of the police spirals downward.
It is my strong belief that there are many good people in the force. But these good apples have found life extremely troubling under the prevailing culture. Those who refuse to go with the flow have to resign themselves to languishing in their posts with no way to go forward.
Those in power pay lip service to the notion of police reform when questioned about police performance. But in reality no politician is truly interested in genuine reform. They prefer the status quo because they figure that once they are in power the police will be a very handy and effective tool for them.
The only concrete "police reform" took place 15 years ago when authority over the police department was transferred from the Interior Ministry to the Prime Minister's Office. Otherwise, nothing significant has changed.
Personally, I believe no reform measures that have been contemplated in the past will ever be enough. The culture of corruption and abuse of power is much too ingrained in the police force.
If we are to rescue the remaining good police officers and create a functional and effective police force, nothing short of a total overhaul will work.
In this we can learn a lesson from Georgia, an ex-Soviet republic.
Georgia was a country in a shambles during the Soviet era, with rampant corruption and power abuse. But then the Rose Revolution swept through Tbilisi in November 2003.
When the dust settled, the liberal-minded Mikheil Saakashvili had replaced long-time Soviet stalwart Eduard Shevardnadze as president.
The new president quickly embarked on a programme of fundamental reforms, with police reform at the top. Almost immediately, Mr Saakashvili fired 80 per cent of standing officers with the aim of replacing a corrupt, bloated and highly bureaucratised culture with one that was firmly grounded in professionalism. In the blink of an eye, a force of 15,000 was slashed to 2,300.
The resources freed up by having a smaller force enabled the government to equip police with new equipment, recruit new officers who met strict professional standards and pay them above average salaries.
Fast forward to 2012 - public polls found that only 1 per cent of the public reported they had been asked for bribes by the police.
The great majority of them (81 per cent) say they have trust in the police force, even more than in the government that launched the reform (56 per cent%).
Perhaps the Thai people should be asked whether they want a reform or an overhaul. And if politicians are not willing, the people should ask themselves whether they need these politicians.
Wasant Techawongtham is former News Editor, Bangkok Post.
Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.