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Police reform may be easier than everyone thinks

Written by World Events

Absolutely hopeless as it may seem, the critical state of the Thai police deserves one last try. And who says the last, desperate measure has to be extremely tough, costly or divisive?

This week has seen rock bottom. Just when the country thought nothing would beat the Kamnan Nok incident, the most powerful men in the force have been accused, directly or indirectly, of involvement in massive and systematic bribe taking. In a matter of months, the badly-tainted image of the Thai police has been blown up apparently beyond repair.

Newscasters and commentators are in unison about the force being rotten to its core. They all agree while “good apples” are out there, the bad ones have been too dominant and unstoppable. Transfers and promotions are less and less on merits, and corrupt practices are feeding on themselves.

Bad bosses are making initially-good subordinates corrupt. Good bosses are getting overwhelmed by bad subordinates. Worse still, those with the disease are spreading it to politicians, reporters, community leaders, and finally the Thai society as a whole.

A traffic offender feeling the urge to “settle” charges right on the spot because it would be cheaper and more convenient is an early symptom.

According to well-known lawyer Sittra Biabungerd, there are too many bribe-taking opportunities nowadays.

Illegal Indian immigrants selling nuts need to pay bribes, so do truck drivers, employers of visa-less foreign migrants, owners of entertainment venues that violate age limits or closing times, operators of Thai massage parlours offering “special” services, underground gambling racketeers and so on.

His proclaimed documents regarding money trails were meant to show that bribe taking is a lucrative culture that goes to the very top of the national police.

Sittra’s move came after two senior-most police officials have been transferred to inactive posts for two months at Government House due to their tumultuous conflict involving back-and-forth allegations made through colleagues.

Sittra was increasing the heat on temporarily-transferred national police chief, Pol Gen Torsak Sukvimol, against the backdrop of Torsak’s face-off with one of his deputies, Pol Gen Surachate Hakparn, who has also been transferred.

At this point, nobody knows if Surachate is being targetted because his police rivals don’t want him to be a hero in the Kamnan Nok affair, or because he is actually a bad apple using the Nakon Pathom case as a stairway to ultimate professional glory, which is the national police chief position. Nobody knows if Torsak wants to discredit him or just do the right thing.

But everyone knows nobody in the Police Department can be trusted. During a TV programme this week, the host asked viewers to vote on which group they think dominate the police force, good cops or bad cops.

About 5,000 people took part in the off-the-cuff poll, and only 14% believe there are more good police officers than bad ones.

Lawyer Sittra was also adding to Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin’s headache. The latter has said on at least a couple of occasions that he did not know what to do with the Torsak-Surachate showdown.

The police affair is making digital wallet look like an easy college exam, but it’s the kitchen heat that Srettha has to deal with, because otherwise he would have no business being here.

If he can solve the police problem, it won’t matter how well Move Forward does, or if he has to scrap digital wallet, or allow Yingluck Shinawatra to follow Thaksin and Jakrapob Penkair home.

He will be a national hero regardless.

Let’s try doubling ethical and moral tutoring and training. It’s cheap, can be done right away, and requires a minimum of legislative and political fuss. It’s also as important as creating the best detectives or sharpest shooters.

If it’s already eight hours a week, make it 16. If it’s already 16, make it 32. Thai police are never criticised for bad shooting or lousy crime solving. They only score poorly when it comes to ethics.

The measure will take time, but this is not a problem that can be fixed with one piece of magical legislation, gag orders, endless transfers or setting up of fact-finding committees that will not recommend any purge anyway.

Torsak, Surachate and the likes will retire soon. They are the cause for worries but not the first priority. As a national leader, Srettha has to do the same as his counterparts in countries that want to, say, rule football for years and years.

Those countries cultivate young players, preparing them for the dangers that come with ability and fame. To have a capable and responsible police force for the long term, the same approach is required.

When it comes to young Thais aspiring to protect and serve, nothing is more important than that Spiderman cliché “With power comes great responsibility”. It must have been taught in the classroom, but never enough to match temptations and realities.

Patience is key. But it is not the only prerequisite. Thai politics and long-term good results don’t go hand in hand. Most politicians like to think short-term because they don’t want others to get the credit. This makes people like Torsak and Surachate the top political priority while in fact they shouldn’t be.

Thinking long-term about the police may be the most difficult thing to do, particularly at a time when politicians need an armed power base. Yet the current crisis of confidence will not destroy just the police force. When ordinary people stop seeing the police as their law-enforcing hope, all kinds of bad things can happen.

As for the Srettha government, a defeatist attitude is not an option, not least because the next eruption of this volcano may spare no one.

Tulsathit  Taptim

 

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