Former Thai immigration police chief Surachate "Big Joke" Hakparn speaks to journalists at Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok on 11 January, 2019. Hakparn has been reappointed in the latest set of partisan reshuffles after being mysteriously ousted in 2019. (Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA/ AFP)

Former Thai immigration police chief Surachate "Big Joke" Hakparn speaks to journalists at Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok on 11 January, 2019. Hakparn has been reappointed in the latest set of partisan reshuffles after being mysteriously ousted in 2019. (Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA/ AFP)

Of Partisan Reshuffles and Stalled Reforms: Thailand’s Police in 2021

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The relationship between the palace and the police is deepening. Meanwhile, long awaited police reforms are in the balance.

The Royal Thai Police has long been a base for Thai politicians. From Phao Sriyanond in the 1950s, Prasert Ruchirawong in the 1960s, and Thaksin Shinawatra in the 2000s, these politicians have sometimes succeeded in leveraging on the police force to achieve their objectives. 

More recently, with the 2008 appointment as Police Chief of Police General Patcharawat, the brother of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, and the 2014 coup, the relationship between the police and the army has grown more intimate. This relationship had allowed Police Chief General Chakthip Chaijinda (2015-2020) to head the force, a choice agreeable to both Prawit and the palace.  

There were 76 appointments in the latest mid-year police reshuffle that became effective on 1 April 2021. The reshuffle was significant because it saw the re-appointment of ex-Immigration chief General Surachate (“Big Joke”, a moniker given to him by the national media) Hakparn, a Prawit-favoured crusader against corruption who had been mysteriously ousted in 2019, and moved to an inactive position. It is testimony to Prawit’s continuous presence that General Surachate has now been reappointed for a final active year to an advisory role assisting in police reform.  

Though General Surachate’s re-appointment was a boon for Prawit, overall, the reshuffle may be seen as a setback: seven senior police whose careers Prawit had advanced up, as well as the brother of powerful businessman-politician Newin Chidchob, were shunted to “Special Advisor” positions, while 45 others were given less desirable “Special Qualified Person” posts.

In addition to ties with the army, the police leadership is now developing closer links with the palace. Indeed, the 1 April reshuffle is likely a strengthening of the October 2020 annual reshuffle which deepened palace-police relations. Those appointments witnessed Pol. General Suwat Chaengyodsuk, the most junior of five deputy police chiefs, leapfrog over the other more experienced candidates to succeed Chakthip as police chief. Suwat is a peer of Chakthip in police academy Class 36 and a pre-cadet Class 20 military preparatory school alumnus, as is arch-royalist ex-army chief General Apirat Kongsompong. Most importantly, Suwat enjoys a royal connection, having been an aide to the current king and a former chief of the Special Service Division, a unit renamed in 2019 as the Rachawallop Police Retainers, Kings Guard 904. Thus, Suwat is truly a king’s man and was assured ascension to the police chief post. 

Under Suwat are five deputies and five assistants, most of whom ascended with Suwat in 2020, including the son of arch-royalist ex-Police Chief Phao Sarasin who was close to Apirat’s father. The October 2020 reshuffle also appointed pro-palace Police General Torsak Sukvimol to commander of the Ratchawallop Police Retainers, King’s Guard 904. Torsak’s brother, Sathitpong, heads the Royal Household and Crown Property Bureau. When Suwat retires in 2022, royal-favorite Torsak could well replace him since he is scheduled to retire in 2024.

While the five-year delay in implementing police reform is disconcerting, more notable is that the National Police Act in the past has been modified nine times with reforms often reversed or not enforced.

There are other senior police working directly with the palace. They include retired Police Colonel Thumnithi Wanichthanom, Grand Chamberlain, Royal Household, and a director on the Crown Property Bureau as well as Siam Cement; Police General Arrotkorn Tipysotorn, Deputy Commander of the King’s Royal Security Command; and Police General Jiraphop Puridej, Commander of the Suppression Division and Head of Special Operations “Hanuman Division.

This year, Prime Minister Prayuth’s government embarked on long-stalled police reforms. Thailand’s 2017 constitution mandated that the government must reform the police within a year of its promulgation but that never happened. Finally, in January 2021, under a bill before parliament, police would be monitored by a new ethics and morality protection committee upon which non-police would sit, and a new police complaints centre. Police appointments would be based on seniority and past performance. While the five-year delay in implementing police reform is disconcerting, more notable is that the National Police Act in the past has been modified nine times with reforms often reversed or not enforced. Reform reversals occurred when coups voided police reforms.

In 2021, Thai police continue to battle gambling dens while allegations of police brutality, corruption, and involvement in human and narcotics trafficking persist. Perhaps the only good news about the police for the future is that General Surachate will be advising on police reform, while the police reform bill, though delayed, eventually should be approved. It is up to legislators to pass an effective version of the law, up to the prime minister to enforce it, and up to the judiciary to interpret the law effectively. Moreover, it is imperative that the law not be weakened. The political will to do all these remains to be seen.

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