Thai coup leaders seek change of course with police shakeup

The military-installed government here sought to confront its inauspicious beginnings this week. The target was the head of Thailand's national police force – notorious for its inefficiency, corruption, and extrajudicial killings.

Meanwhile, arsonists burned schools in the countryside, insurgents in restive southern Thailand continued their attacks unabated, and the investigation into Bangkok's deadly New Year's Eve bombings yielded few leads.

For coup supporters, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont's decision to oust police chief Kowit Wattana, seen as an ally of deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra, was long overdue.

But while axing a top officer may be a good start toward turning the police into a professional, trustworthy, and responsive organization, few in Bangkok expect any breakthroughs in Thailand's many unsolved cases over the past few years.

Moreover, human rights groups fear the generals may simply be using police reform as a cover for purging their uniformed rivals and consolidating power under the military, leaving citizens with little recourse to check the men with guns.

"The overall issue is rivalry between the forces," says Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. "It is high time we reform the police, but it's also high time we reform the Army, which is prone to staging coups and tearing up constitutions."

The longstanding divisions between the police and military became more pronounced after a coordinated set of bombings killed three and injured scores on New Year's Eve. Mr. Surayud and coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin immediately fingered political opponents and dismissed outright any connection to separatist violence in the majority Malay-Muslim southern provinces, where similar bombings since January 2004 have killed hundreds.

Faced with increasing pressure to make arrests, Mr. Kowit last month ordered police to detain 15 suspects, some of whom were connected to military units once commanded by the coup leaders. They were all released within a week due to lack of evidence, however, which many analysts saw as leading directly to Kowit's dismissal.

Meanwhile, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), a Thai version of the FBI that rivals the police force, has recently joined the probe. The DSI announced last week that the Dec. 31 bombings may be linked to southern insurgent groups after all. Investigators are now searching for Thawansak Jehna, who the DSI says may have been among the suspects captured on closed-circuit television planting one of the bombs at a Bangkok mall. Mr. Jehna is also wanted for other terrorist attacks in southern Thailand.

"DSI linked Jehna to the Bangkok bombings pretty quickly and other intelligence agencies have talked about a southern connection for weeks," says Anthony Davis, an analyst with Jane's Information Group, a security trade magazine group. "It's unclear if Kowit was incompetent or just toeing the line Surayud and Sonthi put out right after the bombings."

While the evidence pointing to a southern link is not yet conclusive, any hopes the coup leaders would bring a quick peace to the violent region in which nearly 2,000 have died over the past two years were quickly dashed. If anything, Mr. Davis says, the rate of violence has escalated since the generals took over.

Unsolved violent incidents elsewhere in the country also have the public on edge. Besides the New Year's Eve bombings, arsonists have torched about 20 schools in former Thaksin strongholds in northern Thailand since the coup, and last week blank training grenades were shot at a Thai-language daily newspaper in Bangkok.

Thais looking for answers are now putting their hopes in acting police chief Seripisuth Temiyavej, an outspoken reformer and rival of Kowit best known for taking on Bangkok's mafia figures. Although well liked by the public, Mr. Seripisuth has antagonized some fellow officers by busting up police crime syndicates.

It remains to be seen if his vision for police reform will correspond with the Army's plans. Although several NGOs have voiced a preference for civilian oversight of the country's underpaid cops, the Army has taken steps to rope them in under a shadowy bureaucratic superstructure called the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), which is modeled after the US Department of Homeland Security.

"Here is the real intention of the current government when it talks about police reforms: a return to a 1970s model of social control with police subordinate to soldiers and everybody else subordinate to both," said a recent statement from the Asian Human Rights Commission. "This is not reform; it is deep regression."

Mr. Sonthi recently transferred ISOC from civilian to Army control. Analysts expect a new arrangement heavy on bureaucratic restructuring and short on public accountability.

"It will be a tough negotiation between the government and police in the next few months," says Panitan Wattanayagorn, a former Army adviser and current Chulalongkorn University professor. "Much harder and more complicated than simply removing Kowit."

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