Thai Coup Leaders Seek Change of Course with Police Shakeup ; Human Rights Groups Fear the Generals May Be Using Police Reform as a Cover for Consolidating Power under the Military

Article excerpt

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. …


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