In the wake of the corruption investigation focusing on Phuket police, academics and stakeholders told a seminar held by the watchdog Police Watch that business operators on the island face police extortion worth millions of baht per month.
The seminar was held at the Thai Journalist Association in Bangkok on Sunday.
[Related report: Police ‘need time’ for probe into Phuket officers]
Thammarat Suwanphosri, founder and administrator of the “Spotlight Phuket” webpage, said he had filed complaints with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the Royal Thai Police’s Inspector-General’s Office about extortion in Phuket, citing increasing amounts being demanded for bribes and unnamed “good” officers who wished the issue to be exposed.
In the past week, several police officers have been transferred as a result of the investigation.
Thammarat said the practice of demanding bribes had several root causes, included that police positions had to be bought at five key precincts, prompting officers to demand bribes to compensate for the payments.
The Patong area has seen the most bribes with Bt8 million to Bt22 million being collected per month from several business groups, including those involving immigrant workers, entertainment venues, shops selling counterfeit goods, football gambling and illegal lottery bookies, Thammarat said.
He added that a Phuket construction camp that used to pay Bt1,000 per employee per month in bribery was now being charged Bt10,000 per employee.
Police officers were also profiting by owning shares in businesses backed by Chinese investors, he said.
However, Thammarat said he believed the illegal practices would be phased out as the local economy became more efficiently regulated, with new rules for migrant workers and the adoption of an old proposal about rezoning areas where entertainment venues operate to establish a new licensing system.
Entertainment venues were also being allowed to stay open later in the meantime, which lessened police opportunities to demand bribes, he added.
Pol Colonel Wirut Sirisawatdibutr, former deputy commander at the Inspector-General’s Office and an adviser on police reforms, said there should be a “Spotlight Thailand” for the entire country to fight corruption.
The issue of bribery did not just affect businesses, he said, but also caused consumers to pay higher prices and decreased efficiency
Wirut said Phuket was troubled by multiple forms of bribe-taking, including extorting money from heavy trucks to allow them to travel the roads, resulting in pavement damage that leads to higher accident risks and the Highway Department having to pay millions of baht each year for repairs.
He asked the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) to take action based on the NACC Act’s Section 103, which prescribes punishment for people who illegally acquire assets worth more than Bt3,000. At present, he added, no one was being punished under the measure intended to curb bribe-taking.
He said criminal charges also seemed to target only the officials who actually collected the bribes, instead of the higher-level beneficiaries of the graft, so tackling the issue must be done systematically.
He added that provincial governors and local administration officials should be empowered to investigate suspicions of corruption instead of being vulnerable to lawsuits for allegedly revealing “confidential information”.
Sangsit Piriyarangsan, dean of Rangsit University’s College of Social Innovation, said the police force was not the only organisation plagued by the purchase of offices and bribe-taking, but the nature of the institution meant that there were knock-on consequences for other related agencies and wider social problems.
He added that the use of the anti-money laundering law against private firms regarding “zero-dollar tours”, which allegedly tricked tourists into paying exorbitant prices after promising low-cost services, had caused the public to misunderstand that the law only applied to the private sector, when it could also be applied to state officials and the government.
Police Watch coordinator Somsri Han-ananthasuk said the public should be able to speak out in public about police misdeeds without being vulnerable to libel suits.
Thammarat provide a good example of a citizen stepping forward to help society, she said, urging the government to carry out police reforms for the public benefit and not for the sake of police officers.