Junta’s police reform just vague promise

News of police scapegoating innocent victims has inspired public calls for police reform. But amidst announcements by the junta that it will push ahead with planned reforms to the police force, some believe the initiatives will only increase the regime’s grip over the nation’s law enforcers. 

On 1 February 2017, Tanachai Yanu, a former post office worker in Chonburi Province, was released after one year and eight months in prison. The police had accused him of robbing employees from a cash delivery company at a Siam Commercial Bank ATM in Chonburi, along with four other suspects. Later, both the Court of First Instance and the Court of Appeal dismissed charges against him due to a lack of concrete evidence.

But the damage had already been done. Tanachai said that he was tortured by police officers, adding that he will file complaints against the officers who arrested him.

According to the Deputy Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, Pol Col Dusadee Arayawut, between 2015 and 2016 authorities received complaints regarding some 250 criminal cases warranting reinvestigation. In many cases, the suspects, like Tanachai, claimed that they were prosecuted for crimes they did not commit.   

With Thailand’s Royal Thai Police (RTP) regularly criticised for a lack of transparency in appointments and promotions, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) declared when it took power in 2014 that police reform was one of its top priorities. The regime stated that the primary goal is to rid the police force of ‘political influences’ especially in the investigation department where police inquiry officers are key.

However, many people, including police officers themselves, are skeptical of whether the junta’s reform initiatives will increase the efficiency and accountability of the RTP or merely bring the force more firmly under the military’s control.  

Preventing interference through junta intervention?

Tanachai’s acquittal, and the claim of former teacher Jomsap Saenmuangkhot that she was wrongfully jailed as a scapegoat for a fatal car accident in 2005, have renewed calls for police reform.

The Thai police on 1 February 2017 announced that they will accept the junta leader’s decision on whether or not to use Section 44 of the Interim Constitution for reform of the RTP. Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the junta leader and Prime Minister, has said in turn that the NCPO currently has no plans to use its absolute power under Section 44.

“It is true that the work of inquiry officers is easily influenced by their superiors, government officials, politicians, and other influential figures,” Pol Col Dr Mana Pochauy, Superintendent of Thung Song Hong Police Station and Secretary General of the Police Inquiry Officer Association, told Prachatai.

He added that police inquiry officers, like other public servants in Thailand, work under strict lines of command. When there are orders from above to investigate or not investigate, officers are put in a very difficult position where most choose to follow orders to avoid trouble. Pol Col Mana told Prachatai that the majority of inquiry officers want to become more independent from the Central Investigation Bureau to ensuring checks and balance in safeguarding justice.

Agreeing with Pol Col Mana, a public prosecutor who requested anonymity proposed that a separate interrogation department should be established to ensure the independency of the investigation process. The idea is similar to a suggestion from Police Watch (PW), a civil society group campaigning for police reform. More radically, however, the group argued that this independent interrogation department should be established under the Ministry of Justice.

Contrary to what inquiry officers and other experts have suggested, the junta leader has centralised the police force further, creating obstacles to independent justice. On February 2016, the junta leader used his absolute power under Section 44 to abolish the position of inquiry officers, despite the role being semi-independent from the command of police station directors.

The junta leader reasoned that bringing all departments under the same structure would increase the force’s efficiency. “So far, we have not seen any sign that the authorities will make the investigation department of the force more independent from the centralised RTP administrative system,” said Pol Col Mana.

A mid-ranking police officer, who requested to be referred to by the pseudonym ‘Top’, told Prachatai that the NCPO’s top-down use of power to reform the police force will not bring about positive changes.

“They said that the appointments and promotions of the police force are too political, which is true. But we have witnessed the second coup d’état in the span of less than a decade. Isn’t the military playing with politics themselves?”

Pointing out the hypocrisy of the regime, he said that after the 2014 coup d’état, the military themselves have been the ones intervening in the investigative and inquiry work of the police, especially in cases related to political dissidents.  

Top added that after the 2006 coup d’état, there was a similar proposal to reform the RTP and a committee to reform the police force was set up for the task. However, except for a report on how the force should be reformed, nothing was done.

“If reform policies are going to be implemented, I think they are going to be policies to increase the power of the junta over the police force.”  

In an interview with the Bangkok Post, Wasan Luangprapat, a political scientist from Thammasat University, agreed reform is only a distant dream because the regime seems to exploit the police for self-interest.  

"The NCPO uses the police as a mechanism to implement its policies and stabilise its power. The regime has done nothing at all, be it on salaries or welfare benefits, skills development and or human resources (HR) administration," the Bangkok Post quoted Wasan as saying.

Dealing with lack of resources and transparency  

According to Police Watch, in order to make the inquiry procedures more accountable and transparent, public prosecutors should be allowed to monitor or to take part in the procedure together with inquiry officers.

Agreeing with the suggestion, Pol Col Mana said that cooperation between inquiry officers and prosecutors could bring positive changes. But he does not think the suggestion can be easily transformed into reality.

“Most public prosecutors are routine public servants who are used to working on documents during normal office hours. I don’t think that most of them would like to join the police in interrogating crime suspects at odd hours of the day,” said Pol Col Mana.

The prosecutor, however, told Prachatai, “But many would also be happy to work with police officers to make the interrogation process more accountable. If the suggestion is made a law, then of course it could easily become reality.”

The prosecutor said miscarriages of justice also occur when prosecutors do not do their jobs carefully.

“In certain cases, although more evidence was needed, the prosecutors did not send case files back to the police to ask for more evidence, but proceeded with the indictment.”

The prosecutor added that these oversights sometimes occur because the police submit case files to the prosecutors only when the pre-indictment custody period of 84 days permitted by the Criminal Procedure Code is about to run out. Therefore, the prosecutors feel pressured to proceed with the indictment.

Adding to the suggestions, Pol Col Mana said more financial and human resources should be allocated to the investigative and interrogation work of the police. “Although investigative and interrogation work plays a very significant role in influencing the fundamental justice process, the budget for it is very limited. So most police officers do not want to do this work. They get only a little extra payment on top of their police salaries, which are known to be rather low anyhow,” Pol Col Mana told Prachatai.

He further stated that the lack of skills and training is another problem. He said the budget for police training is very limited and on top of that most training programs designed by the Police Education Bureau are oriented towards delivering training certificates needed for promotion, rather than genuinely improving the skills of the force. When faced with high-profile criminal cases with tremendous pressure from the public, some police officers do their work hastily.

Culture of impunity

During the notorious war on drugs during Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration, at least 2,500 drug suspects were killed extrajudicially and many more alleged that they were tortured by paramilitary troops or police officers. Although it has been more than a decade since the war on drugs was scrapped when Thaksin was ousted by the coup d’état in 2006, not a single police officer has been prosecuted or arrested.

Throughout Thai history, state officials have engaged in torture and enforced disappearances and never been punished. Part of the reason is the lack of any law which criminalises torture and enforced disappearance. In fact, some officers who committed these crimes have been promoted while civilians who spoke out were punished.

In 2014, the Army filed a libel suit against Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, a human rights lawyer and Director of the Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF) of Thailand. Pornpen was accused of causing damage to the reputation of the army by submitting a report to the UN about alleged torture committed by the army.

In 2011, Suderueman Maleh was sentenced to two years in jail for reporting torture allegedly inflicted upon him by police. The lawyer representing Suderueman in this torture case was abducted and disappeared in 2004. Yes, that lawyer was the prominent Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit.

The current judicial process and apparatus have created huge obstacles to bringing to justice perpetrators of these two extraordinary crimes. Currently, Thai law does not recognise or criminalise enforced disappearance and torture. If a person is tortured by a police officer, they have to start the judicial process by filing a complaint with the police themselves.

In 2016, almost a decade after Thailand signed the UN conventions against torture and enforced disappearances, the Justice Ministry submitted a bill against torture and enforced disappearance to the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly. If enacted, the law will be the first to recognise and criminalise torture by Thai authorities. It will also recognise and criminalise enforced disappearance even in cases where the body of the victim is missing.

However, under the military junta which itself has utilised torture and enforced disappearance to suppress dissent, people are sceptical about the fate of the bill.

Under the bill, any government official or employee of the state who commits torture must serve a jail term of from five to 20 years. If the torture leads to serious injury, they may face 10-30 years in jail. If a person is tortured to death, the official will face life imprisonment and a fine of 600,000 to one million baht. It also states that officials who commit enforced disappearance will face five to 20 years in jail. If the enforced disappearance leads to serious injury, the officials will face seven to thirty years, but officials will face life imprisonment if the act leads to the death of the victim.

For Top, however, in a country like Thailand where reality usually varies greatly from rhetoric, we will have to wait and see if the bill brings justice to people who suffer torture and ill-treatment at the hands of public officials.