A chance to reform police
The recent clampdown on three high-profile suspects accused of lèse majesté and other offences shed light not only abuse of royal links but also corruption in the police force.
The three were involved in the the royally-initiated national biking events. From the beginning, the authorities realised they would have to win the case in the court of public opinion as one of the suspects is a well-known astrologer and another was a high-ranking police officer.
In a widely publicised press event, the police showed evidence of the suspects' assets, which were allegedly illegally obtained assets via kickbacks, including luxury cars and real estate. All three suspects confessed to lèse majesté, but multiple other offences were also levelled against them.
Along the way, however, Thais lost the opportunity to hear exactly what happened when one of the subjects, Pol Maj Prakrom Warunprapha, committed suicide in a military detention facility at the 11th Military Circle on Oct 23, following the example of a senior police officer in a previous lèse-majesté investigation.
The fact that senior officials who are defendants in cases involving lèse majesté may be prone to suicide attempts should have meant the police major was placed on suicide watch – which was apparently not the case.
The accusations and evidence against the police major depict a lot of what is wrong in the police force.
He was accused of obtaining significant quantities of seized assets from a previous high-profile lèse-majesté and corruption investigation in which Central Investigation Bureau chief Pol Lt Gen Pongpat Chayapan was found guilty of claiming royal connections to amass a personal fortune.
The authorities are investigating how this cache of what should have been a secured chain of evidence destined to have been auctioned off to benefit the state's coffers was purloined.
However, that this could have occurred at all, especially on the scale suggested by the military's detailed inventory of seized assets, raises the issue of just what happens to other evidence seized during investigations and paraded before the public. Clearly, there is a greater need for a publicly accessible trail of secured evidence not just in high-profile investigations but routine police work.
According to a police probe, Pol Maj Prakrom, thanks to his work as a superintendent at the Technology Crime Suppression Division, had obtained unlicensed radio communications devices and set up a kind of illicit radio station.
The exact purpose of this setup is still being investigated. But the public is correctly concerned about possible eavesdropping from corrupt elements in the force.
The fortune teller Suriyan "Mor Yong" Sucharitpolwong's alleged involvement in the corruption also cast a light on how pervasive corruption is in society.
According to Transparency International, 37% of those surveyed feel business in Thailand is corrupt or extremely corrupt, 58% feel officials and civil servants are similarly corrupt, and a massive 71% feel the police are corrupt or extremely corrupt, with 37% of Thai households admitting having paid the police a bribe in the last month. Yet 29% of Thais in 2013, according to Transparency International, feel that ordinary people can have no effect on reducing corruption.
Aside from the military regime's vow to tackle graft, the National Anti-Corruption Commission last week unveiled an Anti-Corruption Foundation to address public apathy and acceptance of graft, especially in children and youth. Privy Council president Gen Prem Tinsulanonda has also reiterated the need to tackle corruption.
The roles of corrupt police officers in these lèse-majesté cases should prompt the military regime not only to prevent future abuse of power, but also bring about police structural reforms.
There is no shortage of ideas for how to progress with these reforms, including decentralisation to provincial, city, and precinct levels and providing the Department of Special Investigation with the resources and training necessary to replicate the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, with its special role in investigating police corruption.
Given the groundswell of public opinion in favour of police reform following the two lèse-majesté corruption cases involving police, if police reform is not initiated now, Gen Prayut will lose a major chance to provide a level of legitimacy to the next 18 months of his rule.
John Draper is Project Officer, Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Programme (ICMRP), College of Local Administration (COLA), Khon Kaen University. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, Phd, is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.