It’s time to clean up the police force

thaipolice

Corrupt and abusive officers are continuing to tarnish the reputation of this country; serious reform is an urgent priority

The message that emerged from a seminar held by human rights groups over the weekend could not be more timely. The groups called for the authorities to immediately pursue important legal cases, especially those involving human rights transparency, in order to restore some credibility to the police and law enforcement officers.

Somchai Homlaor, a leading human rights defender in Thailand, said there are a number of unresolved issues relating to law enforcement such as the extrajudicial killing of around 2,500 people under the “war on drugs” initiated by the government of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Questions remain about the victims of this campaign and law enforcement officers have yet to provide answers to any of the cases. This raises the question of the credibility of the officers who have dealt with these investigations.

Angkana Neelapaijit, the wife of missing human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, commented at the seminar that the delay in the investigation into her husband’s case showed there was inefficiency in the police investigations, especially in cases allegedly involving law enforcement officers themselves. And this inefficiency is a reminder that there should be a complete reform of the police department.

The operations of the Thai police have long been known to have fallen foul of political intervention and influence. Under Thaksin’s government, suspected drug dealers were killed outright, without recourse to evidence gathering. Most of these cases raise serious questions over human rights violations, and there is a complete absence of the authorities’ determination to provide justice to the victims’ families. The then government cannot deny responsibility.

Yet it gave the green light to officers to violate human rights. If justice is never served, the issue will damage the country’s reputation even further in the long run. Many people already question the credibility of this country’s law enforcement apparatus.

While the old issues have yet to be answered, over the past few weeks the police department has been in the hot seat again. This follows the widely publicised reports on the role of national police chief General Patcharawat Wongsuwan in the investigation into the April assassination attempt on Sondhi Limthongkul, leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Patcharawat was accused of trying to interfere in the investigation of this incident, which has already become a source of friction between Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Deputy Premier Suthep Thaugsuban, who seemed to try to protect Patcharawat in spite of questions over his performance as police chief.

While Thai society is divided down the middle, the police have unfortunately been severely affected by the political polarisation. Both red shirts and yellow shirts are calling for the legal system to provide justice to their camps.

The public is meanwhile waiting for the results of the police reshuffle to see if the cycle of political interference in the police force will continue or whether it will bring some hope that there is a real desire and effort to reform the department.

The police restructuring, scheduled to take effect on August 16, is a sweeping move to overhaul the service, which comprises 105,375 positions. It will be an unprecedented opportunity to fill top slots for more than 1,000 generals and colonels.

Patcharawat is due to defend himself before the National Anti-Corruption Commission on charges of malfeasance in handling the violent crackdown on PAD and red-shirt protesters last October 7. Let’s hope that the investigation will provide answers for the public over the mishandling of the crackdown that day.

The result of Patcharawat’s case will show if there has been any interference from people in positions of influence and power. After all, Patcharawat is the younger brother of General Prawit Wongsuwan, the defence minister, who is closely allied with Army Chief General Anupong Paochinda.

Reform of the police service would be a good start in providing justice for all members of society. In fact, the recently concluded Asean Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Thailand highlighted human rights as one of the desirable goals of the regional grouping. However, human rights protection will not be effective if the law enforcement services cannot operate independently. The credibility of the service will be further tarnished if officers continue to abuse their power and violate other people’s rights.

Although the government of Prime Minister Abhisit has yet to spell out its policy to seriously reform the police service, Abhisit has said on different occasions he will restore law and order to the country. Given the large number of ongoing cases and the tensions between people with different political preferences, this is the right time to start the process. The government must show the public that all investigations relating to police officers are being carried out transparently and without any political interference.

This is the least the government must do to give the public some hope that justice is not an unattainable dream.

By The Nation
Published on August 5, 2009

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