Special Ops chief says actions speak louder than words

Special Ops chief says actions speak louder than words

SOP commander says hostage rescue should dispel any doubts about his meteoric rise to the top of the force

Special Operations Police commander Pol Maj Gen Phumin Phumpanmuang
Special Operations Police commander Pol Maj Gen Phumin Phumpanmuang

The hostage drama that unfolded aboard a Bangkok bus last week brought plenty of attention to the Special Operations Police (SOP), a new unit within the Royal Thai Police whose broad remit ranges from combatting drugs to protecting the Crown.

In the wee hours of Aug 22, SOP commander, Phumin Phumpanmuang, was called upon to lead a team to rescue two people being held hostage on the No.8 bus in Bang Kapi district.

As the siege unfolded, Pol Maj Gen Phumin quietly led the operation from the sidelines.

Unemployed and addicted to drugs, Peeranat Saengjan, 24, had threatened to shoot a passenger and the bus conductor if the driver did not take him to Victory Monument.

After five hours of negotiation that went nowhere, the police stormed the bus and nabbed the gunman. No one was injured.

The operation's success garnered a lot of public attention for the little-known SOP and Pol Maj Gen Phumin. But within the force, the Phumpanmuang surname already carries a lot of clout -- in fact, former national police chief, Somyot Phumpanmuang, is his uncle.

The surname, Pol Maj Gen Phumin said, is both a blessing and a curse. First, he said, the name comes with expectations. But he said it has also motivated him, pushing him to prove that he is able to rise through the ranks on his own merit.

He said that as a young child, he would tag along with Pol Gen Somyot, then a mid-ranking investigator, on missions.

When his uncle became the deputy chief investigator at Phra Khanong station, Pol Maj Gen Phumin recalled, he was allowed to join the team on a gambling den raid.

As the raid unfolded, gamblers attempted to flee, he recalled. His uncle told him to join the action, so in a panic, Pol Maj Gen Phumin said, he desperately latched onto a suspect in a futile attempt to arrest her.

Born and raised in Ayutthaya, Pol Maj Gen Phumin spent his formative years studying locally. He said he knew crime-busting was his calling when he was five years old.

He later moved to Bangkok where he attended Bodindecha (Sing Singhaseni) School before getting into the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School. When the time came for him to choose a force to enrol in, he opted for the Royal Police Cadet Academy.

After graduating, he landed his first job as a detective at the Narcotics Suppression Bureau, where he learned the ropes for two years.

He later worked for the commander of the Marine Police Division, and once impounded 36 boats smuggling illegal oil in just two days.

Pol Maj Gen Phumin was also used as a decoy in a sting which went south when he was a young officer in Suphan Buri. After his cover was compromised, the suspect fired at him, but missed.

He returned fire, killing the suspect, he said. It was the first time he had been involved in the death of a suspect.

Later, he moved to Metropolitan Police Division 1, where he was involved in stamping out drugs. He advanced through the ranks and was appointed chief inspector of the Crime Suppression Division (CSD).

Often referred to as Phukan M ("Inspector M") by his close friends, Pol Maj Gen Phumin is also known for his involvement in anti-drug operations, for which he has been awarded by the RTP for five consecutive years.

He was transferred to serve as chief investigator of the CSD's commando unit, before being promoted to deputy commander. His career then took him to Phuket, where he was named police superintendent and the head of the island's marine and tourist police branches.

It was when Pol Maj Gen Phumin was made superintendent of the CSD that he earned the alias "M Ha Ba Palang" for his go-getter attitude. During his four-year stint here, he was known for leading crackdowns on paid hitmen.

He continued to oversee criminal investigations when he was appointed deputy commander of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division (ATDP). There, he took part in devising a system to monitor recently released sex offenders to prevent repeat offences.

After two years at the ATPD, his career hit the fast track when he became SOP commander, a position which elevated him to the rank of police major general.

The broad-ranging responsibilities of the SOP include responding to hostage situations and launching counter-terrorism operations. The unit also provides security to the King and members of the royal family.

His rise to the SOP's top seat triggered heated debate. In the previous no-confidence session in parliament, an MP from the Move Forward Party suggested his rapid career advancement was the result of a blessing from "the higher institution".

Pol Maj Gen Phumin, 46, however, insists he earned his promotions through hard work.

"I know I have what it takes to be where I am," he said.

"There are quite a few anti-monarchists around. The SOP's roles also include instilling the right understanding [about the monarchy's closeness to people]," he said.

Although the SOP is a new unit in the RTP, it has more than 1,500 personnel already. Its officers undergo extensive training, including anti-terrorism courses, tactical parachuting and sharp shooting.

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