11 July 2024

Even more puzzling than the country’s two top policemen being sidelined simultaneously for alleged corruption is that both have been reinstated months later as if no damage had been done.

In a development that critics call “a farce”, national police chief Pol General Torsak Sukvimol and his deputy Pol General Surachate Hakparn have been shifted from suspension in the Prime Minister’s Office back to their posts following the completion of an investigation by a three-man committee appointed by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin in March.

Critics say this “win-win solution” for the feuding top cops is not in the national interest since it leaves many questions unanswered, especially regarding allegations linking Torsak and Surachate to illegal and lucrative online gambling.

Speculation abounds of a “secret deal” between the conflicting sides, while media have reported rumours that certain political heavyweights are paving the way for Surachate to become the next police chief in exchange for him helping to boost their party’s performance in southern provinces in the next election.

Surachate, aka “Big Joke”, is a native of the southern Songkhla province and president of the Southerners Association of Thailand.

Feud at the top

On March 20, PM Srettha transferred Torsak and Surachate to inactive posts at the Prime Minister’s Office following a damaging conflict between them and their subordinates.

The PM-appointed fact-finding committee was headed by retired Interior Ministry permanent secretary Chatchai Phromlert and also featured former deputy police chief Pol General Winai Thongsong and former deputy attorney-general Chartpong Jiraphanthu.

Several months earlier, Torsak and Surachate had been involved in a fierce battle for the top job in the Royal Thai Police.

Just days before the Police Commission nominated a new national police chief, Surachate’s Bangkok house was among multiple locations raided by cybercrime police on suspicion of money laundering and online gambling.

The Police Commission opted to appoint Torsak, the least senior of the deputy chiefs among the four candidates, as the new police chief.

Surachate, who is 53 and seven years younger than Torsak, was considered the most senior candidate. Torsak, 60, is set to retire at the end of September this year.

Surachate was charged with involvement in money laundering as a result of the raids.

Meanwhile, Torsak was accused of failing to include a house he allegedly owns in England in his assets declaration filed with the National Anti-Corruption Commission. Allegations also emerged that family members of the new police chief had received money linked to online gambling.

PM has final say

Completing its task after three months of work, the investigation panel identified four high-profile cases behind the feud between the rival police camps, most of them linked to illegal online gambling networks.

They included a former Chonburi police chief demanding 140 million baht in “protection money” from an online gambling ring, an influential person in Nakhon Pathom ordering the killing of a highway policeman to cover up police bribery, and separate cases involving the “Minnie” and “BNK Master” online gambling networks.

Former deputy PM Wissanu Krea-ngam, now a legal advisor to the prime minister, told a briefing at Government House last Thursday (June 20) that Torsak had been reinstated as police chief since the investigation against him had finished.

Surachate had been reinstated as deputy chief by a police commission in April but was then dismissed from the force pending further investigation on the recommendation of a disciplinary panel set up by acting police chief Kittirat Panphet. 

Wissanu told reporters that the three-man investigatory panel had not concluded that Torsak and Surachate were guilty, adding that this decision rests with the prime minister as chair of the Police Commission.

However, the two top cops would have to defend themselves in the ongoing cases against them, he said.

The long-serving legal adviser, who served as deputy prime minister for legal affairs in the previous government of General Prayut Chan-o-cha, conducted the press conference alone, without the three-panel members.

Surachate’s dismissal ‘problematic’

Wissanu added that the acting police chief’s dismissal of Surachate breached the Royal Thai Police Act, which requires that the dismissal of a police officer can only come at the suggestion of an investigation committee.

The investigation panel set up by the acting police chief had reportedly not made such a suggestion when he issued the dismissal order.

Wissanu also said the Council of State, the government’s legal advisers, found that Surachate’s dismissal order violated his rights and suggested that it must be rectified.

The prime minister is required by law to seek royal endorsement for the dismissal of a police chief or deputy chief.

The PM’s adviser said on Tuesday (June 25) that no royal endorsement should be sought before the Police Virtue Protection Committee could decide whether Surachate deserved to be dismissed. Surachate had appealed to the committee against his dismissal order.

Analysts say PM Srettha is unlikely to make such an important decision by himself without a resolution from the Police Commission, which is scheduled to meet on Wednesday (June 26) to consider whether Surachate’s dismissal breached the law.

The commission’s disciplinary subcommittee recently approved Surachate’s dismissal on grounds that the order was issued as per the relevant law and regulation.

The commission is expected to review the subcommittee’s order at its next meeting, to be chaired by the prime minister.

Several retired senior police officers have warned that rescinding Surachate’s dismissal would expose those involved to legal action for cancelling a lawful order.

In the absence of royal endorsement of his dismissal, Surachate is still the most senior deputy police chief and remains one of the candidates to become national police chief when Torsak retires in a little over three months.

Surachate has become more belligerent in the face of a dismissal order that has blocked his path to the top job.

On Monday, he filed a complaint with the National Anti-Corruption Commission accusing Kittirat of malfeasance for issuing the “unlawful” order to dismiss him from the police force.

Surachate 0also threatened to take legal action against PM Srettha and Torsak, the reinstated police chief, if they failed to rescind the order by next week.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk//Photo : National police chief Torsak Sukvimol, left, and his deputy, Pol Gen Surachate Hakparn, embrace after a press conference in March//AP