BANGKOK: Thailand’s top cop says his task is to revive trust in a graft-tainted force, but observers believe his real brief is to be a hatchet man for a junta trying to tame the police—and their patron, billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
For decades the fortunes of the Thai police and military have waxed and waned depending on who is in government, with money, rank and power bestowed upon the institution of the hour.
Until last May’s coup, the stock of the police force had soared under successive elected Shinawatra governments, vexing an army whose primacy is normally assured by its massive budget, ties with the royalist establishment and penchant for seizing power when things are not going its way.
Now it is in charge, the junta appears determined to bring the police to heel.
After sweeping the 2001 election, Thaksin, a former mid-ranking police officer turned businessman, dropped his pointmen into key policing posts.
Those appointments buttressed his family’s political base — especially in the country’s north — reaching deep into local communities, where even low-ranking police wield substantial authority.
His enemies say Thaksin crafted a network of police fiefdoms fuelled by corruption and indebted to his billionaire family, wedding the force’s fortunes to his own long after he was toppled by the army in 2006.
Junta-leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who marked six months as prime minister on April 17, has been busy severing that alliance.
Amid an immediate purge of senior officers, Prayut made Police-General Somyot Poompanmoung his commissioner, sweeping aside an incumbent picked by Yingluck Shinawatra — Thaksin’s younger sister, who led the administration felled by last year’s coup.
Somyot, who has continued to sideline Shinawatra loyalists, bemoans the “shadow of politics” historically cast over the 200,000-strong force — although he now sits in Thailand’s junta-selected National Legislative Assembly.
“Political parties interfere with the police and some police officers have served politicians in the hope of progressing,” the 59-year-old Somyot told AFP from behind a hulking wooden desk at police headquarters in Bangkok. “We are ready for a change.”
Good cops, bad cops
Thais routinely complain that their police are better at hoovering up streetside bribes than detective work.
Somyot, who declares his assets at over $11.5 million — including income from advising companies as well as property holdings and investments—has vowed to transfer, arrest or prosecute all graft-tainted officers.
True to his word, he has nailed several senior policemen, including the head of Thailand’s elite Central Investigation Bureau—jailed with his deputy in January for defaming the royal family while running a criminal empire from inside the police.
“In any big organization there are good and bad people,” Somyot says. “My aim is to improve the public’s feeling towards the police. If I can do it, even a little bit, I will have been a success.”
But analysts say Somyot’s focus is to do the bidding of an army that craves control of the police and, by extension, the Shinawatras —a family whose pro-poor policies won them every Thai election since 2001, along with the hatred of the Bangkok elite.
Somyot’s task is “to redesign the police in a way that will long make it into a mechanism of the military”, according to Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai.
“And (to) eliminate influence from local politicians such as Thaksin,” he adds.
To do so, Somyot has called for the restructuring of the Royal Thai Police board, currently chaired by the prime minister, to prevent premiers selecting future police chiefs.
The police are also about to be sheared, according to a draft of a new junta-backed constitution, with marine and forest police among the units to be moved to government departments.
On April 8 the junta further tightened the screws, empowering soldiers to carry out the routine police work of searches, investigation and arrest.
The order allows “military officers to interfere in the work of the police”, says Puangthong Pawakapan, a Thai politics expert at Chulalongkorn University.
Money, money, money
Whatever the motivation, police reform is an often-heard refrain which never sticks, according to Chuwit Kamolvisit, a former massage parlor impresario who named and shamed cops on his payroll before turning to politics.
The cash-for-jobs culture within the police is too deep to uproot, he says, alleging low-rank officers earning just $460 a month tap the public for bribes, or solicit protection money from dodgy businesses, to top up their salaries and buy promotions.
“Rank and status is everything in Thailand… when you are a small policeman to go up, you need to have the right boss,” and preferably one at a “golden police station — near a casino or entertainment venue”, he explains.
Thaksin also still draws loyalty from the police rank-and-file as well as a large portion of the electorate.
The role of Thai police chief is famously precarious given the kingdom’s fast-changing political winds. Somyot is already scheduled to retire in September when he hits 60, although there are rumors he may not last that long.
And the merry-go-round of Thai politics — the country has seen 19 successful or attempted coups since 1932 — dictates that some form of Shinawatra comeback can not be ruled out, and with it rewards for loyalists and retribution for enemies.
“Police are politicians… they always survive,” Chuwit adds.