In the dark on army's shadowy powers

In the dark on army's shadowy powers

Estimates vary, but two wrongs tend to make things twice as wrong. As bad at the Royal Thai Police have been, and this newspaper has been a strident critic of their myriad failings, the junta’s unilateral decision last week to turn soldiers, sailors and airmen into the nation’s second, shadow police force is extremely troubling.

Under a Section 44 order signed by junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha on Tuesday that came into immediate effect, officers ranked sub-lieutenant and above have broad powers to suppress and arrest anyone they suspect of criminal activity, without a warrant, and detain them secretly without charge for up to seven days at almost any location. Bank accounts can be frozen, and documents and property can be seized. Also problematic is that automatic immunity has been built into the order, and there is nothing by way of independent oversight. Should cases against suspects fail to proceed, no recourse is available.

Along with the broad powers, some of the wording is worryingly vague. “There are people whose behaviour and wrongdoings are considered crimes. They threaten the country's economy and society,” the order says. What behaviours and who considers them crimes are unwritten, and what threat they pose to the nebulous notion of society is unclear: it will be for the military regime and its soldiers on the ground to interpret and implement these rules as they see fit.

Critics were quick to speak out against the move, and it’s not hard to see why. With this order, any lingering doubts that the junta is a law unto itself must have evaporated. Rights groups and activists expressed fears the extra powers would soon lead to extrajudicial abuse, as in some ways soldiers will have more power than the police and much less oversight.

Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, called the move “a recipe for abuse, not greater peace and order”. “By erasing the line between the military and the police, Prime Minister Prayut has further reinforced his dictatorship and guaranteed more blatant human rights abuses, increased numbers of civilians being tried in military courts, and further impunity for soldiers to do whatever they want whenever they want,” he told the Associated Press.

After the order was issued, with little fanfare in the Royal Gazette, the junta had a two-pronged defence. One reason cited was that the order was being used to target the hundreds of people on a hit list of “influential figures”, while Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon said there simply were not enough police officers to do the job. Neither of these claims adds up to a pressing reason to turn 300,000 members of the armed forces into a parallel police force.

Even if hundreds of police are among the 6,000 who are suspected of involvement in major crimes, there are other ways of removing them. Dedicated task forces with specialist investigators who work closely with prosecutors to obtain warrants, evidence and, eventually, convictions would inspire plenty of fear in wrongdoers and far more confidence in the public. Arbitrary detentions without evidence, by contrast, looks more like a continuation of the long-running turf wars between the army and police.

The idea there are not enough police also doesn’t pass the smell test. There are about 230,000 officers in the force, and they make up 17% of the non-military public service. There are 344 police for every 100,000 people in Thailand, more than twice the ratio Myanmar and the Philippines have, one and a half times Japan and Indonesia and roughly the same proportion as the United States. The force is undoubtedly riddled with problems, but a lack of staff is not one of them.

Besides, fundamentally, the best solution is to fix the problems with the police — remove or jail corrupt officers and hire new ones — rather than doubling them with the addition of the army.

It is impossible to ignore the timing or the context of the order, coming on the same day the draft constitution was released and in the same week former MPs were detained. Weeklong intensive attitude adjustment “courses” were announced for those who repeatedly defy junta orders. A woman was charged with sedition for posing with a red plastic Songkran bowl bearing a message from fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and a journalist from Thai Rath was arrested and interrogated for writing about it.

As for the police themselves, the leadership has been curiously AWOL. A police spokesman on Wednesday backed Gen Prawit’s assertion there were not enough officers, but the silence from the chief and his deputies has been noticeable.

Too much about the reasoning behind order remains murky. But what is clear is turning the army into a shadow police force is the most disturbing development since the coup.

Editorial

Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : ploenpotea@bangkokpost.co.th

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