Saturday, September 25, 2004

The Strange Face of the Thai Justice System

The Thai police and the Thai justice system have some strange manifestations and practices that differ greatly from most western countries. Roundly acknowledged by expats and Thais alike to be rife with corruption, the Thai police are vested with some remarkably wide-ranging powers that are more likely to be seen in totalitarian and fascist regimes rather than the democracy Thailand claims to be.

A regular occurrence in Bangkok is the arrival of a group of police officers at a night club where they will bar the doors behind them on the way in and demand urine samples from as many patrons as they see fit. Drug tests are performed on the spot with a mobile lab and anyone failing the test will likely face a night of interrogation at the local station, probable fines and a possible search of their home and finally, potential arrest. The arbitrary nature of such events can probably be chalked up to club owners who have not played along with bent cops angling for payoffs.

Another almost daily event that is surreal only because of the difference from western countries, is the parade of arrested suspects whose pictures are sprayed all over newspapers and on the TV news. The standard shot is of the suspect seated at a table with the associated wares of whatever crimes they are accused of having committed arranged neatly in front of them, along with a row of stern-faced coppers behind the individual or group of arrestees. This doesn't seem to cause any discomfort to those within the justice system or raise concerns regarding the presumption of guilt that are inherent in such displays.

But then, why would it even rate an acknowledgement when the thousands gunned down in the war on drugs last year are now barely mentioned by the local media?

A related sideshow activity is the re-enactment of crimes committed by those same individuals who are accused and in custody. Perhaps this spectacle is only undertaken when someone has confessed to a crime though with such disregard for any semblance of a fair justice system and ruthless, brutal cops, what does a confession really mean anyway? These recreations of crimes are played out for the media cameras, with often a sheepishly smirking individual making a pretend gun with his thumb and forefinger and showing how he put a slug into someone's head.

Last year there were a few corrupt Buddhist monks locked up for various scams in which they bilked gullible fools out of millions of baht. In one case a monk even turned murderer and the requisite demonstration was played out with him in his orange robe, smirking and demonstrating how he pulled the trigger.

Bribes are such an accepted part of dealing with police in Thailand that it doesn't even rate any displeasure when someone is recounting how they were pulled over in their car and had to cough up the appropriate amount for whichever violation they may or may not have committed. Supposedly illegal activities carry on blatantly as long as the pigs get their soiled snouts in on the action and slurp up an appropriate heaping of the slops. A half-baked theory that is routinely floated is that any family with aspirations of wealth and power will ensure that at least one family member joins the police force and aims to ascend in the ranks. Their upward trajectory in the force is likely smoothed along by payoffs from the family who in turn looks for suitable payoffs in terms of having their misdeeds overlooked somewhere down the road. Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister of Thailand and one of the richest men in Asia, is himself a former pig.

As with all instances of using anecdotal sources to form an opinion on something, there are numerous contradictions and examples that fly in the face of the accepted condemnation of the actions of the Thai police. Personally I've never been harassed or shaken down for a bribe from a policeman in Thailand and during my only direct interaction I only experienced courteous and professional behaviour. Though in possession of a distinctive hard-edged facial appearance, make eye contact or offer that barely perceptible nod of acknowledgement that is almost universally known and many will smile or nod in return.

Perhaps that is only a testament to how powerful a hold learned and accepted norms of behaviour have over us. The outward arrogance of many western pigs grates because it is seemingly easy to attach their assumptions and thought processes to such mannerisms. Just as the smirk that so many suspects in this part of the world have on their faces may have more to it than only the sneering smugness that occidentals associate with such a look.

There is the same intrigue with crime and law enforcement here as in most places. One pop culture phenomena that has found its way here is the made for TV, real-life police documentary in which a camera crew follows various police officers around as they pursue criminals. Latching onto a particularly sleazy or deviant case, the camera crew will then follow the individual through the various stages of arrest, trial and sentencing. In these cheaply produced prurient affairs there is often a shot of the arresting officers talking to the accused at various times throughout the process. The sight of a police officer coddling and comforting a criminal who is realizing the enormity of his fuck-up is something that wouldn't likely be seen in a western country. Though the cameras are rolling the displays seem genuine and are a strange contrast to the brutality these same police officers are capable of.

The practice of identifying national character traits is easy to criticize as it is fraught with sweeping generalities. However, I do believe these rare but tender displays of sympathy from the boys in brown are representative of a Thai capacity for forgiveness and an affinity for those who have fallen that is often not so evident elsewhere.

Cross-posted at: Flogging the Simian