The role and value of Thailand’s Royal Thai Police is an immense and valuable one that foreigners should recognise and understand as it underpins everything in the land of smiles that brings both visitors and expats to its shores. 

At the end of September, the Royal Thai Police will see the retirement of no less than 6,293 personnel from its ranks including 13 police commissioners and 34 deputy commissioners. This means an opportunity for promotion for many but it also means the need to recruit more cadets to join Thailand’s police service which has well over 230,000 members across the country in a range of divisions. It reminds us that every year young Thai men and women answer the call for what is often a thankless job that requires both discipline and self-sacrifice.

At the end of September, nearly 6,300 officers of the Royal Thai Police will retire. The force needs to recruit new members to what is a difficult and often thankless job. Often criticised or made fun at by foreigners in Thailand, we look at the crucial role of the Royal Thai Police, a sophisticated organization in spite of the mockery. It is also one that is highly effective in its role. It underpins everything that foreigners find so attractive and appealing about Thailand.

The recent TM30 debate raised by some foreigners in Thailand has exposed among other things, a lack of knowledge among quite a few expats of the challenges faced every day by Thai police agencies including the immigration bureau in keeping peace and security in the country.

At a recent meeting in the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok with expats, Police Major General Patipat Suban Na Ayudhya, the commander of police immigration division 1 was asked by one foreigner on a distinguished panel of expats why there has been a need in recent times for rigorous enforcement of key visa provisions under the 1979 Thai Immigration Act. The inspector replied that it was due to an influx of criminals posing as tourists due to the growth of international tourism in Thailand in recent years. 

Read more on the TM 30 debate and immigration laws for foreigners here

Many foreigners, dare we say it, take law and order in Thailand for granted and seem unaware of the effort that goes into maintaining security and the threats that are out there including new ones stemming from increased globalisation and cheaper world air travel. Thailand is a country with an insurgency to the south and as we saw in recent weeks, it is also a target for terrorism. The Erawan Shrine bombing of 2015 was a particular wake up call to security agencies when it was discovered that Uyghur elements from Turkey were living in regular accommodation throughout Bangkok and had arrived in the country on tourist visas. 25 people lost their life in the bombing and hundreds were injured.

Royal Thai Police is an integral part of life in Thailand and working to improve itself

The Royal Thai Police is central to all life and activities in Thailand. Often derided by foreigners in Thailand as being corrupt, the police force has been actively cleaning up its image in recent years with a real drive to root out corruption within its ranks while also rooting criminal elements and lax attitudes towards the enforcement of the law.

Yet it is rare for foreigners to ever look behind the stereotype of the Thai police officer on his motorbike, on traffic duty or from the pages of crime reports such those as regularly featured on your Thai Examiner. These are real men and women and most of them simply want to serve their country and the public.

Some foreigners have a less than positive view of the force based on a caricature

Foreigners in Thailand and those visiting Thailand have a very one-dimensional view of the Royal Thai Police and often it is not a positive one. It is based on the caricature of the overweight Thai policeman who rides his motorbike with a colleague. Yet Thailand is one of the very few countries in the world where you can leave your goods outside your door without fear of theft and where foreigners can feel relatively safe. The same cannot be said for many other developing countries and in today’s upside-down world, for many western cities such as Paris or London and much of the Western world where increasingly, low-level crime is being ignored.

Thailand is a safe country thanks in no small way to the Thai police and that is a fact

It is one of the reasons why many foreigners are happy to live in Thailand, a developing country that offers all the comforts of the first world plus the superb weather and distinctive culture but underpinning it all, is the fact that there is law in the kingdom.

It might be incomprehensible to foreigners on the wrong side of it but it is an effective deterrent to a free for all. Thailand, with the exception of its southern provinces, where there is political unrest is consistently listed by foreign countries as safe for tourists and Bangkok is listed among the Top 50 safest cities in the world according to the Economist magazine’s safe city index with a score of 60.5. It is a remarkable fact despite the bad press and reputation that the city constantly suffers, in the same manner, as the Thai police.

And the irony of it is that those upholding that law are often at the butt of end of jokes and cynical comments by foreigners in online forums and Facebook posts.

Thai police are engaged in a vital and valuable profession for Thai people and foreigners alike

It is an interesting exercise to look at the role of being a police officer in Thailand from the point of view of the Thai man or woman who is in the profession or contemplating it as a future.

You will read online countless news reports suggesting that it is a comfortable life to be lead. The work of the Thai police, we are often told, is an exercise in doing the least amount work and avoiding at all costs taking responsibility. This is a very inaccurate picture and it is little wonder that the patience of the Thai police hierarchy was tested in 2018 with the controversial and unfounded claims by a young UK tourist regarding an alleged rape on the island of Koh Tao in which some parts of the media completely bypassed and ignored official police channels.

Life of a Thai policeman is difficult

The life of a Thai policeman is difficult. It involves balancing day to day responsibilities and increasingly dealing with foreigners from countries all over the world with different cultures and understanding from those held in Thailand. And it is a job that, in spite of razor-sharp criticism by some foreigners, they are doing well. 

Thai people seem to still have a respect for the law in their country and those upholding it which again, is more we can say for many western countries in today’s troubled world.

Another difficult truth for those people critical of the Thai police is that those men and women who are willing to put on the uniform, are, in fact, making a personal sacrifice and are engaging in a vital and valuable profession to Thai people and foreigners alike.

Thai authorities anxious to root out police corruption

What comes into your mind when you hear about the Royal Thai Police (RTP)? Surely anything but good news if you have little or no real-life contacts with the Thai police. 

Thailand is a country with a very free press when it comes to crime reporting. Daily newspaper and websites regularly show corpses at murder scenes and forensics teams going about their business. 

Transformation of Thailand since the 1960s to a thriving economy and urban society  has brought challenges for the Thai police

The Royal Thai Police is kept extremely busy in a country that in the last five decades has been catapulted from essentially an agricultural economy to today’s Thailand which despite its slowing economy, has recently become a haven for foreign capital. 

In that time, the country has seen a massive displacement of the rural population to the cities and has been targeted by drug and crime gangs. The country’s position on the edge of the drug heartland of the Golden Triangle means that the Thai police are operating in a constant struggle with vast drug lords on the Thai border who operate minor kingdoms with private armies.

Influx of foreigners into Thailand puts a strain on police services fighting on multiple fronts

In the meantime, Thailand has developed a massive tourism industry which has made it a magnet for crooks and criminals worldwide to move to as a base for their operations. Many criminals on release from prisons around the world make for Thailand as the sunshine land of girls and parties. An example of this was the arrest last September of a Mozambican criminal mastermind who was running a kidnapping operation in East Africa from Bangkok which had led to many murders on another continent. Momade Assif Abdul Satar had set up in Bangkok immediately after his release from prison in Africa in 2015. He arrived as a tourist.

New advanced screening at airports is a success

The huge number of arrivals arriving at Thailand’s airports as part of it still growing and spectacular tourism industry makes the job of Thai police even more difficult.  This is a challenge facing the Royal Thai Police. Officials have recently committed to using advanced screening techniques to curb the influx of criminality. This use of database and facial recognition technology has been a huge success and is gradually rooting out undesirable visitors.

No denying the issue with corruption but there is a new open attitude to combating the problem

The image of Thai police online has been developed by commentators who focus on reports of kickbacks or tips for turning a blind eye to traffic violators.

The recent crackdown into corruption by the Thai government and the police itself has unveiled involvement in illegal brothels or reports of small business looking for protection. There is no denying that Thailand, as with many other Asian countries, has an issue with corruption.

Corruption no longer being tolerated in Thailand

However, what also cannot be denied is the sincere effort by the present Thai government and its predecessor to root it out. In the last five years, successive news reports have not only announced the arrest of officers at all levels of the Thai police force but also provided hard details of the cases no matter where the enquiries have led.

Criminal investigations have even seen led authorities to some Thai Buddhist monasteries, which were the subject of raids by Royal Thai police and soldiers. The message is clear, corruption is no longer being tolerated in Thailand.

Thai police force is quite a sophisticated organisation

What many foreigners do not seem to understand is that the Royal Thai Police force is a very sophisticated organisation with various specialised departments and command structures operating with a limited budget in a free market economy.

It is a police force very much in tune and in touch with the population of Thailand and its culture. It is also quite effective at detecting and fighting crime. There are supposed to be between 230,000 to 250,000 officers in the Royal Thai Police although there are reports currently of lower levels on the force. Salaries are low with an entry-level of just over ฿9,000  per month and an average of ฿15,000 per month.

Demanding challenges and conditions facing police

The police force is working under extremely demanding conditions. Not only is the Thai police countering large Chinese and Japanese criminal gangs, but it is also adjacent to the centre of the worldwide drug industry as well as dealing with crime at all levels of Thai society where poorer people have seen radical and demanding changes in life which in turn has led to the proliferation of drugs.

An example of one of the challenges is domestic abuse. Thailand has a huge problem with violence in the home which, in a conservative and patriarchal society, strains the resources of the Thai police and requires acute sensitivity by investigating officers. The relationship between the Thai police force and the public is its most valuable asset. 

This is a positive aspect of Thai policing and why foreigners in Thailand often feel safer than in many first-world cities particularly in light of recent events in the West.

Thai public love its personal freedoms in a traditional society that resists invasive, micro laws 

The Royal Thai Police is also dealing with a free and vocal society where people at all levels resist personal restrictions and micro laws. This can be seen in the appalling death rate on Thailand’s roads which Thai police have to deal with but find a lack of appetite among the public for more the enforcement of stricter safety laws.

Foreign criminality one of the biggest challenges

In addition to all of this, the influx of foreign criminality running in parallel with Thailand’s tourism industry must also be policed.

Two of the biggest and high profile murder cases in Thailand in the last decade have been cases here foreigners were both the victims and the perpetrators. The murder of a US businesswoman Wendy Albano in  Bangkok hotel in 2007 caused worldwide consternation. The successful apprehension of the Indian business associate in India who carried out the crime occurred through cooperation between the Indian police and Thai authorities and involve the intervention of the US political elite including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

More than 10,000 apply to join the Royal Thai police each year, eager young Thai men and women

Each year, there are more than 10,000 applicants to enrol in the Thai police recruiting program, according to some estimates. Many of the young applicants see a career and some see glory in the service of the public and wearing the uniform.

They do not see the hidden side of the world of Thai policing, in which they have to endure constant pressure and danger, with little or no reward or recognition. If in the past it was reported that there was an income stream from backhanders or corruption to supplement very low salary levels, that is no longer part of today’s new order in Thailand. Corruption is being wiped out.

This still leaves the Royal Thai Police force dealing with the security and safety of Thailand’s 70 million people and all the foreigners who are staying in Thailand while on holidays or living permanently here.

Thai police pay for their own equipment and uniforms and that can be hard on a low salary

For a start, it might be hard to believe but Thai police officers have to pay for basic equipment out of their own pockets. Thai police officers must purchase uniforms, firearms, transceivers, handcuffs and even motorcycles if required for duty.

Some police don’t even have a gun because a good handgun can cost as much as ฿70,000, a fortune to many Thai people. To some westerners, this might sound like a joke in a job where police frequently encounter armed criminals.

Money is also a headache in every aspect of police operations, mainly in the form of budget constraints. For example, the monthly fuel allocation for police vehicles often fails to cover the whole month, and police officers have to spend their own money on fuel to keep the police cars and motorcycles going after the allocation runs out.

Late hours and dangerous situations

The odd working hours are another ugly side of the trade. A policeman has little time to sleep, according to Colonel Dr Pullop Aramhla, the superintendent of Bang Phli police station when interviewed in 2016 for a Bangkok news website.

He usually goes to bed at 12.30am and gets up at 5.30am if there is no case of emergency. And it is absolutely normal for him to be ordered at 2 am to inspect the scene of a deadly road accident or to stop a gang fight.

Thai police boss: ‘There’s always something happening’

While people from other lines of work can expect some compensation or responsibility or an allowance in return for such long working shifts or the dangers, police officers are supposed to be just fine with it. There is no question of extra pay for all their troubles. Their job has one thing in common with other emergency service professions, though, the continuously taxing rate of work. Possibly even worse than that is the shortage of staff.

Most police stations are understaffed, and Colonel Aramhla’s is no exception. His has 140 policemen and 10 policewomen to keep a watch on an area of 150 square kilometres with about 200,000 inhabitants. This explains the gruelling work schedule. ‘There’s always something happening’, he said.

Thai police – there are some perks with the job

To be fair, policemen and their families are entitled to some privileges, like free housing and health care. But access to free medical care is restricted to government-run hospitals only, and the apartments for policemen are sometimes derelict or sparsely furnished. They can also apply for rent-free buildings located within the reach of police radio transmitters, usually around 10 kilometres around the station. Other than those options, they have to take housing into their own hands. That’s all the support police officers get from the government.

Dealing with criminals is hard work – suicides not unheard of among Thai police officers

It is easy to see why cases of police stress-driven suicides are not unheard of in Thailand. And yet police play such a vital and important role in Thai society. They are always called first to help in times of turbulence when a deadly road accident happens, when criminals disturb the peace, or when disasters strike.

Called in to deal with ghosts and supernatural activity

In areas with a high number of migrants, they are also important to remedying the relationship between locals and migrant factory workers who may get into trouble for heavy drinking or drug use. The police were recently called to increase patrols in a rural area of northern Thailand to provide confidence to the local community who feared ghosts and supernatural activity. The role and value of the Royal Thai Police in Thai society is immense.

A young man who wants to serve his country –  a policeman in Thailand out to get the bad guys

It is their ideals and the aspiration to help people rather than material desires that causes young people to pursue a career in the police force.  ‘I want to serve my people and my country,’ said one young police officer working at Colonel Aramhla’s station, summarizing perfectly why he was there. He also vowed to refuse bribes of any kind and to arrest lawbreakers no matter who they were, proudly showing the silver stars on his shoulder. They cost him ฿250 baht apiece.

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Further reading:

Thai expats launch website to campaign for easier immigration reporting rules for visa holders

Thailand’s top immigration cop wants genuine foreigners to come forward – new visa regime is forever

Thai police capture and deport an evil Mozambican criminal mastermind

Thailand leads the world in the crackdown on online romance crooks targeting Thai women online

Koh Tao claims by UK teenager questioned by Thai police – arrest warrants indicated for some media