Police seemingly stood by as caches of war weapons were assembled; now the junta can cool the crisis by bringing justice to bear
Large caches of war weapons have been seized by authorities since the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) issued an order on May 29 for people to hand over military hardware to the authorities. Anyone arrested in possession of war weapons will be tried in a military court and faces between two and 20 years in jail if found guilty, according to the junta’s order.
In the two weeks since, more than 1,500 guns, 900 grenades and thousands of rounds of ammunition – much of it for assault rifles – have been seized or surrendered. Adding to the pile are the M-16 and AK-47 assault rifles, M67 and rocket-propelled grenades found “abandoned” in many provinces – most likely as a result of the NCPO order and its accompanying threat of lengthy imprisonment.
The NCPO order and its dramatic effect contrasts sharply with the action – or rather, lack of action – taken by police over the six months of street protests leading up to the coup that ousted the Pheu Thai-led government. Police never made any arrests in connection with the series of attacks on anti-government protests prior to the May 22 coup. In the six months of rallies led by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, starting in late November and continuing until the military intervened, 28 protesters and bystanders were killed and more than 800 injured by unknown assailants armed with military-grade weapons.
We now know that those weapons were just the tip of the iceberg, a fraction of the armouries of military hardware being stockpiled across the country to wage political violence. Many of those arrested in connection with the illegal caches have been found to have political links.
All this has intensified the focus on the police and their failure to prevent this dangerous “military build-up” and the attacks on protesters. There are strong suggestions that the police failed to do their job properly because they were also embroiled in the political crisis. Law enforcers were repeatedly accused of siding with the politicians in power and acting against anti-government protesters. Many allege that senior police officers allowed themselves to become pawns of politicians. Evidence for these allegations came with the breakdown in security and the unchecked spread of political violence, which military commanders led by Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha cited as the motive behind their decision to seize power.
Now the junta must justify its action by returning security to the country and getting rid of the illegally stockpiled war weapons. Authorities also need to focus on preventing weapons from being smuggled out of military or police arsenals by men in uniform. In order to avoid allegations of double standards, men in uniform found in illegal possession of war weapons should face the penalties under the NCPO order.
If it wants to make good on its pledge to “bring back happiness to the people”, the junta must ensure that all those caught fomenting violence are punished according to the law, regardless of their political or military connections.