Dire need for a reformed law enforcement agency
Critics of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra were not exaggerating when they described the country under his rule as a "police state".
A former police officer, Thaksin infiltrated the police force with people he trusted and never hesitated to use as a political tool to bear down on his political opponents.
The infamous war on drugs that culminated in the murder of more than 2,500 drug suspects, the crackdowns on the so-called mafias that largely targeted those on the opposite side to the ruling party, and the secret investigation of government critics' assets are just some of the more glaring examples of how the Thaksin administration used the police to maintain obedience and build up political popularity at the same time.
The sudden disappearance of prominent Muslim lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit in 2004 clearly demonstrates the extent to which the political rulers would go in abusing the law enforcement agency to silence whoever was seen as a threat. Though there are doubts that the real political mastermind behind Somchai's kidnapping and presumed death will ever be brought to justice, there is enough evidence to suggest that such a blatant act would not have been possible without a green light from the highest political level.
When Thaksin was ousted more than two months ago, it was expected that there would be a quick clean-up of the police force to pave the way for a long-term overhaul. But the key police figures who helped Thaksin bolster his police state are still around. Police General Kowit Wattana, the national police commissioner who showed no qualms about being at the politicians' beck and call, not only managed to cling to his post but was also given a free hand by the coup-makers to reshuffle the police force.
An excuse offered by some generals in the all-powerful Council for National Security (CNS) was that maintaining law and order and coping with the so-called "undercurrents" was already a handful for them. Finding fault with the law enforcement agency the size of an army at this juncture would only make things unnecessarily more complicated.
It's understandable that CNS doesn't want to earn the ire of the police when they need all the help they can get to keep Thaksin's grassroots supporters in line. But that doesn't mean the national police chief should be given a blank cheque to run one of the country's most important public security agencies.
What the country badly needs is a new crop of police officers who make no pretence about how corrupt and politicised the police force has been and who have the vision and the courage to push through the much-debated reform of the law enforcement agency. For obvious reasons, the top police echelon has been lukewarm towards the ongoing reform plan adopted by the Surayud government. They probably have more to lose than anybody else.
The reform, which is being studied by a committee headed by Police General Vasit Dejkunchorn, a retired police officer highly regarded for his integrity, and comprising many respectable legal experts, seeks to decentralise the bloated police force and make it more professional and more accountable to the public. But resistance to any change that will affect the status quo is already evident.
Critics of the reform, who include senior police officers, have seized upon one committee member's recommendation that the force in provincial areas be placed under the control of local authorities so that no single police general can exercise absolute control over the huge law and order apparatus as happens today. They know that this is a prospect that will not go down well with members of the police force and which will harden their resistance to the restructuring plan.
This is exactly the kind of distraction that is unnecessary and, if allowed to snowball, may very likely make the task of reforming the police force more difficult. What the Surayud government and the CNS need is a police leadership that is professional and responsible enough to admit to what is wrong in the force and willing to take the hard path of reform. They definitely cannot expect those who exploited or abused the system for personal gain to be serious about making changes.
The challenge facing the reform committee is without a doubt an unenviable one - but one that needs to be overcome if Thailand is to build a society where there is respect for rule of law. Over the years, the police force has been turned into a huge empire in which corruption and the patronage system are heavily entrenched.
As the reform committee goes about restructuring the police force, it must not forget that at the end of the day it's the junior policemen - who do the patrols, conduct investigations and go out tracking criminals - that deserve the most attention. Any reform must seriously take into account the need to improve their working conditions and financial incentives. And these go hand in hand with proper training that not only puts emphasis on the basic duty to "serve and protect", but also on professionalism and ethics.
But it will be no easy task to explain to junior law enforcers why they should not take bribes, abuse their power or make their obligation to serve the people secondary to serving their political masters, when all they see are senior officers who got where they are by doing these very same things.
Members of the Thai police force definitely need to have people they can look up to at the top. Sadly, there aren't many good cops around that can serve as their inspiration.