BANGKOK — The announcement that Thailand’s best-known police officer had arrived sent gasps of shock across a news conference at Royal Thai Police headquarters.

“Whoa, he’s not late this time?” one reporter cried aloud, to the laughter of those familiar with his inhuman schedule.

But before Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn could enter the room earlier this week, a phone call stopped him. It was a Pattani police official briefing him on the latest insurgent attack to leave an officer dead.

It would be an understatement to say that Surachate’s a busy man. Last week his handling of a Saudi runaway turned global derision into praise before he was back in the streets busting more foreigners. He only found time to sit down for a Monday interview with Khaosod English after appearing at two news conferences – one in the Pathum Thani outskirts – about four cases ranging from child rape to online scams. Soon after the interview began, aides started laying a fraud case out across the table for his attention.

Such cases fall under a much broader domain than his official role as immigration bureau chief, a job he was awarded in October after becoming the public face of weekly crackdowns on foreigners.

In this undated photo, Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, left, talks to foreigners in Bangkok during the Songkran festivities.
In this undated photo, Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, left, talks to foreigners in Bangkok during the Songkran festivities.

“My goal is to make visitors to our country, whether here for tourism or business, feel safe,” said Surachate, who goes by a nickname that makes English readers chuckle: Big Joke.

If that weren’t enough, he also helps lead the police cybercrime unit, where he has taken credit for busting scammers.

At Monday’s news conference, one reporter whispered that Big Joke oversaw so many cases because their investigating officers wanted him to get the fame in return for expected favors, but Surachate himself said it’s more about efficiency.

“We work with every unit,” Surachate said. “Online world and technology are present in every aspect of our lives … so we have to integrate our efforts in suppressing crimes that come with it.”

 

A New Playbook

A political scientist familiar with police affairs said Surachate’s meteoric rise cannot be explained solely by his connections – the usual lubricant of bureaucratic advancement.

“Big Joke revolutionized the police organization by adopting the management style of the army,” said Wanwichit Boonprong, who teaches at Rangsit University. “In the police, underlings take care of their superiors. In the army, superiors take care of their underlings.”

He added that Surachate’s filial loyalty to those responsible for his successes – such as annual donations to his high school – helped convince the puu yai to back him for key positions.

Surachate was born in 1970 in Songkhla. His father, also a policeman, based his son’s nickname on his favorite playing card: the joker. Surachate quickly rose through the ranks to command a local police station and later move to Bangkok to head the 191 task force.

From there he sprang to the tourist police before landing the top post at the immigration bureau last year.

Two foreigners react as Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn looks on Friday morning at Bangkok’s Montien Riverside Hotel.
Two foreigners react as Lt. Gen. Surachate Hakparn looks on Friday morning at Bangkok’s Montien Riverside Hotel.

Connections cannot be totally discounted, Wanwichit the lecturer said. Surachate’s father is a close friend of both deputy junta chairman Prawit Wongsuwan and Pheu Thai MP Sanoh Thienthong.

At the age of 42, Surachate was promoted to the rank of police major general – the first among his year’s academy graduates to do so – earning him the additional nickname big, a media moniker for major generals and up.

Because he has more than a decade left before mandatory retirement – and now just one rank shy of police general – many observers consider him a likely future police commissioner. Surachate does not deny such ambitions.

“I think everyone wants to be police commissioner,” Big Joke said. “Whether I can become one is a matter of karma and destiny, but as of today, I want to live with the present and perform my duties to my best.”

Where some police brass would wince at the suggestion they stage publicity stunts to advance their careers, Surachate suggested that’s just how things work.

“If I’m a police commissioner but no one knows me or has trust in me, what’s the point?” he said. “There’s no use. So I want to do my duty and build my cases so the people can see them and have faith in me.”

Unlike many higher-ups, his audience doesn’t seem limited to impressing his superiors.

Outside the chain of command, Big Joke has won public notice for taking the kind of principled stands – or at least voicing them – rarely expressed by top brass.

Last week, he responded to the crucible of pressure by reversing a deportation order against Rahaf Alqunun, insisting he would not “send someone to their death.” In a surprising break from protocol, she was allowed to enter the kingdom and obtain refugee status from the UNHCR.

In October, as legal threats mounted against underground rap artists over a video slamming military rule, he came out to say they not only had a constitutional right to free speech, but that senior officials should listen.

Wanwichit said Big Joke has one advantage his older peers don’t: He can afford to bide his time

“Even if the next government doesn’t like him and moves him to [an obscure post] he can simply wait for a government that likes him to be in power and promote him to commissioner,” Wanwichit said.

Were he not a lifelong policeman, what other job would Surachate imagine doing?

“I would want a career dedicated to helping society, like the police do,” Surachate said. “I would be in an NGO.”

 

Good Guys, Bad Guys

Surachate’s rise has put him into close contact with issues involving foreigners in Thailand. He oversaw investigations into alleged Chinese-run boiler room scams and so-called zero dollar tours.

But many know him best for the dozens of raids on foreigners suspected of working without authorization – an operation initially called Black Eagle but later renamed X-Ray Outlaw Foreigner.

Under his command, the bureau whose slogan proclaims “Good Guys In, Bad Guys Out,” will undergo several changes. Surachate said he’s drafting suggested amendments to the 1979 immigration law to make things smoother for expats seeking to reside, retire or work in the kingdom.

“I can guarantee it will be easy to apply and live here,” Surachate said. “[But] bad people will have a hard time.”

Proposed changes include abolishing 90-day reports and introducing 10-year visas for foreign retirees, Surachate said. A data link between the immigration and Thailand’s consular affairs around the world was recently established. Experts will also be consulted to see what restricted professions should be open to foreigners.

“The amendment process will take probably about two or three months,” Surachate said – an optimistic assessment when at least half a year is usually needed to pass legislation.

At the same time, he said the immigration is working with the Anti-Money Laundering Office to inspect past tax records of expats living in Thailand in order to weed out those with suspicious activities.

“I’d like to remind all foreigners that their stays and businesses in this country have to be legal,” Surachate said. “We’re watching you.”