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Commentary: Shooting of police inspector at dinner party exposes corruption underbelly in Thai police

CANBERRA: A brazen killing of a police inspector at a dinner party attended by more than two dozen policemen in Thailand has shocked the nation, threatening to lift the lid on corruption.

The inspector was shot multiple times after reportedly refusing to agree to a request by the host – a local government official and influential businessman – to promote his relative.

Eyewitnesses say a loud argument broke out between the pair. Shortly after, the host’s henchman walked in and shot the inspector in full view of the other partygoers. Another officer was wounded by a stray bullet.

More than 20 officers were present at the party, nearly all of whom were armed. However, none of them intervened: Some fled the scene while others allegedly helped cover up the crime and remove evidence, according to local reports. The deputy national police chief said one of the officers at the party released the gunman after confiscating his handgun, after which he and the local government official reportedly absconded with a police escort.

POLICE REFORM A PIPE DREAM

Little has changed since Thai economist Pasuk Phongpaichit’s iconic book Guns, Girls, Gambling, Ganja on police graft 25 years ago. The book examined how gambling, prostitution, drugs, arms trading, oil smuggling and human trafficking funded Thailand’s corrosive “money politics” and sustained corruption in the police.

In 2018, the police topped the list of defendants in corruption and malfeasance cases heard in graft court.

Last month, a National Anti-Corruption Commission report revealed that 86 per cent of police stations nationwide failed integrity and transparency tests – four times higher than the average across all state agencies.

And in a nationwide survey earlier this month, 86 per cent of respondents said they believe some police and state officials serve and protect mafia-style influential figures in Thailand.

In response to the killing of the inspector, Thailand’s new Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin promised that he would purge the force of “mafia-type infiltration”.

But the government’s response so far suggests it is not serious about eliminating police criminality, focusing instead on compiling a list of “mafia-like gangs and politicians”.

Pheu Thai and its precursor parties have, collectively, been in power for more than nine years – ample time to have acted on corruption in the police, if they had wished.

Ex-premier (and former police lieutenant colonel) Thaksin Shinawatra – widely held to be Pheu Thai’s real leader – is unlikely to help. During his three-month “war on drugs” in 2003, 2,873 Thais were killed, including whole families, women, children and old people. According to the US State Department, Thaksin told the governors and provincial police that those who failed to eliminate a prescribed percentage of the names from their “blacklists”, would be fired.

Nor will Thaksin’s erstwhile political opponents – now key coalition allies. When in power, they dallied in enacting laws on police administration. It was only after the 2021 murder of a suspect at police hands that they rushed through a police ethics code requiring officers not to associate with, or support, wrongdoers – which has only too obviously proved ineffective.

It’s hard to see how Thailand’s new administration will clean up the police. It is not a priority for Srettha’s Pheu Thai Party.

Instead, Pheu Thai is prioritising policies to regain some of the support it lost by breaking a pre-election promise not to coalesce with parties backed by the 2014 junta leaders. Its stimulus policies, such as debt moratoriums and a 10,000 baht cash handout to those aged 16 and over will likely resonate with many of the party’s poorer rural backers.

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BITING THE HAND THAT FEEDS IT

The government is also relying on tourism which, contributes 20 per cent of Thailand’s gross domestic product. Government spokesman Chai Wacharonke noted that it “is the only economic engine that can still run and is expected to generate substantial revenue for the country”. To this end, the government is targeting 40 million foreign tourists in 2024 – a 29 per cent increase.

However, if the government fails to address police criminality, it will be all but impossible to realise this goal. For years, police have faced charges for allegedly extorting or kidnapping tourists. Earlier this year, in a high profile case, six officers were indicted for reportedly extorting money from Taiwanese actress Charlene An over an e-cigarette (which is illegal in Thailand).

Worse, in February, the deputy national police chief said that up to 110 immigration police officers – including generals – were suspected of helping Chinese gangsters stay illegally in Thailand between 2020 and 2022. Over that time, Chinese nationals reportedly kidnapped their compatriots for ransom, most recently earlier this month.

Such reports will continue to dent Thailand’s reputation, especially in its second-biggest market, China. Thailand recently removed visa requirements for Chinese visitors, hoping to boost tourism.

But rather than tackle police reform – an issue that successive governments have avoided, it’s more likely the government will make soothing noises until the latest scandal fades from the public’s attention, and then let it drop.

Craig Keating is a former analyst, ex-diplomat and long-time Thailand watcher.

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