Top: National police commissioner Suwat Chaengyodsuk inspects riot police companies in Bangkok on Sept. 20, 2020.
It always plays out like a clockwork, a movement rehearsed as well as any police parade.
An embarrassing scandal breaks out – say, existence of a brothel or gambling den is brought to national attention. The police officers in charge of the area where the incident takes place get “transferred to an inactive post.” They get placed “under investigation.” Promises of disciplinary and even criminal punishment are made.
That same maneuver is repeated this month, when senior police officers in eastern Thailand were whisked away to “temporary duties” in Bangkok for allegedly letting local illegal casinos operate right under their noses. Hundreds of coronavirus cases were soon linked to the gambling dens. National police commissioner Suwat Chaengyodsuk said they will face consequences for their negligence.
“Every precinct must be strict. They cannot be negligent like this,” Gen. Suwat told reporters. “Anyone who does wrong must be punished.”
But no one can say for sure how many police officers were actually punished after they were put in “inactive duty,” away from media attention. Even the chief of the national police disciplinary division, an agency tasked with handing out penalties for misconduct, said he doesn’t know.
“There’s over a thousand disciplinary cases in the pipeline right now,” Maj. Gen. Ukrit Srisuakham said in an interview. “I can’t really tell the progress of each individual case or how many cases have been found guilty since there are so many of them.”
Contrary to popular belief, a “transfer to inactive post” doesn’t officially count as a punishment either.
“It’s an administrative procedure,” Ukrit said. “When we remove someone from their post, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re wrong. We want to remove their influence from the area they served.”
An activist who monitors the police force said the lack of clear disciplinary or legal actions against members of the law enforcement that fail to uphold the law fosters a culture of corruption and impunity within the ranks.
“It doesn’t do any good. It’s not even a punishment,” police reform advocate Wirut Sirisawasdibut said of the police’s habit of putting officers in inactive positions. “Some of them may be able to return to their original position after 10 days, when the society and the media already forgot about it.”
According to the police regulations, officers can be found guilty of “serious” and “non-serious” breaches of discipline. The former involves severe punishments like suspension, discharge from the force, and expulsion without pensions, while the latter has to do with lesser disciplinary actions such as detention or being put on a probation.
A report published by the Royal Thai Police in October said 342 members of the force were either discharged or fired since the beginning of 2020, but it did not specify details of the offenses or how long their investigations lasted.
Activities in Inactive Post
But such punishments are rare. For a majority of police officers accused of corruption, taking bribes, negligence, and other acts of misconduct, the consequences of their actions mostly consist of their time in the “inactive post.”
The commonly used English translation is somewhat misleading, since it’s not really “inactive.” Officers are tasked with various desk jobs – for which they get paid.
The original term in Thai is “temporarily assisting police duties at the Royal Thai Police Operations Center.” In an interview, police spokesman Yingyot Thepchamnong explained to Khaosod English what goes on inside the center.
“There are all sorts of duties at the center,” Yingyot said. “It acts like the central command center of police forces nationwide, so duties can range from attending daily briefings, gathering intelligence data, to analyzing information.”
Maj. Gen. Yingyot said there are “hundreds” of officers working at the operation center, though he could not confirm how many of them were transferred there for some alleged misconduct.
All of the officers working at the operations center still receive their salaries in full, since they carry out official duties for the force, while the length of stay depends on their commanding officers to decide, he added.
“If they are found guilty, they will go through disciplinary procedures,” Yingyot said. “If not, they may be able to return to their original duties or somewhere else depending on their commanding officers.”
In a 2018 interview with Thairath news agency, Police Inspector General Suchart Teerasawat also described transfers to the “inactive post” at the center as a lenient measure.
“There are two types of officers assisting police duties at the Royal Thai Police Operations Center: those sent there as a punishment, and those who have their regular positions there,” Suchart was quoted as saying. “It isn’t anything serious for who got there as a punishment. They are given tasks to perform as usual.”
Wirut the activist said the cozy arrangement provides little to no deterrence against wrongdoers in the police force.
“It’s even better for those officers since the jobs at the operations center are relatively easy, and they still get paid,” Wirut, an ex-police corporal said. “Some of them even got promoted after they spent some time there.”
The Khaki Revolving Door
The latest high profile “transfers to inactive post” involve the commander of the eastern region police, Lt. Gen. Veera Jiraveera, Rayong provincial police chief Maj. Gen. Paphatdet Ketphan, and four officers at the Rayong City Police Station.
They were booted out of their original post in late December following the discovery of an illegal gambling den in the city center – which they initially tried to dismiss as a “warehouse.” The gambling den was soon identified as a major cluster of coronavirus infections. At least two people linked to the casino have died of the virus as of publication time.
Provincial police commanders of Chonburi, Chanthaburi, and Trat were also removed from their positions for allowing similar gambling dens to operate amid the coronavirus pandemic.
With at least 1,500 confirmed cases and rising, the four eastern seaboard provinces are now placed under a soft lockdown. Residents must seek official permission before leaving their provinces.
It is unclear what punishment Veera, Paphatdet, and other police officers ensnared in the fiasco would face and how long they would remain in inactive posts. A quick review of precedent cases shows that policemen accused of malfeasance routinely return to their posts soon after media attention fades away.
In October 2018, immigration police officer Col. Janchai Daengprasert was accused of ordering officers to request “tips” from inbound tourists at Don Mueang Airport, who would not be granted visas unless they paid up. He was transferred to an inactive post, pending an investigation.
As of today, Janchai is back working at the same airport, having moved up to a rank of police colonel.
Two years earlier, in August 2016, four police officers at Phra Khanong Police Station were moved to inactive posts after soldiers raided an illegal gambling den in their jurisdiction.
Public records show that all of them – Lt. Col Withoon Khunboonchan, Lt. Col. Somsit Santasanachok, Maj. Sanphet Jiraakharakul, and Capt. Jakkarate Upatham – soon went back to active duty.
Withoon was back at Phra Khanong Police Station by 2017, having been promoted to the interim station chief. Sanphet and Jakkarate returned to the same station as a traffic officer and an investigative officer, respectively, while Somsit moved to Mae Wong Police Station in Nakhon Sawan province.
The head of Huai Khwang Police Station was also transferred to inactive duty in 2016 after local officials, acting on a tip from a foreign NGO, rescued underage girls from a brothel in the area.
But the hiatus wouldn’t last long for Col. Kittipong Wisetsanguan, who was back in active duty with the Special Branch Police by the following year.
It’s the same story for almost every major police station involved in a scandal. In 2017 alone, chiefs of three police stations accused of turning blind eyes to gambling dens in their area – Phaholyothin, Hua Mak, and Ladprao – returned as superintendents after spending a brief stint at the operations center.
Policing the Police
That’s not to say that a serious punishment is unheard of in Thai police force. Two police officers at Thong Lor Station were fired just days after it emerged that they extorted a sum of 245,000 baht from a French national in December 2019.
Two police officers accused of bribing each other for a promotion in 2016 are also believed to have been dismissed from the force, as no public records speak of their service after the scandal.
Wirut, the campaigner for more transparency in the police force, called for a tougher procedure when dealing with police officers accused of graft. He said the accused should be immediately suspended from all duties, without pay, while the inquiry is ongoing.
“This is what they are afraid of,” Wirut said.
But Ukrit, the police official in charge of the disciplinary review division, said doing so would not be fair to the men in khaki.
“Our system is a system based on accusations,” Ukrit said. “So we must give an opportunity for the accused to defend themselves with the fact-finding committee before a punishment can be handed down to them.”
He also said the notion of being transferred to an inactive post over unethical behavior is already a symbolic punishment in itself, since it would serve as a stigma to the accused.
“They’ve already lost credibility from the allegations,” Ukrit said.
Additional reporting Teeranai Charuvastra