Biometric system has emerged as the reason for a reported breakdown in the relationship between Big Joke and the National Police Chief General Chakthip Chaijinda in the run-up to his removal from office in April 2019. This week, senior immigration officers revealed that the ฿2.1 billion screening system has generated over ฿240 million in overstay fines in the last six months alone as the new regime has led to thousands of arrests since it went live last year.

The shooting of a car driven by the former immigration police boss, Lieutenant Surachate Hapkarn this week in a Bangrak alleyway has shone a light on what may have been behind the sudden removal of the popular policeman known affectionately as ‘Big Joke’ last April. It has also revealed that the former officer would like to return to police work at some point. The week has seen internal tensions at the top of the police exposed while also highlighting a National Anti Corruption Commission probe into Thailand’s advanced biometrics system which senior officers rallied around towards the end of the week to enthusiastically defend.

Senior immigration police including Major General Chuchat Tharichat this week showed off the ฿2.1 billion biometric system in operation at Don Muang Airport as it has been claimed that an anti-corruption investigation into the system may be linked to the shooting of a car driven by former Immigration Bureau boss ‘Big Joke’ or Lieutenant General Surcahate Hapkarn now working at the Office of the Prime Minister (inset bottom right). The controversy surrounding the shooting has this week revealed a rift between the Thai national police chief, General Chakthip Chaijinda, (inset top right) and the former immigration topman linked with the contract to install the biometric facility that may have caused the shock departure of Big Joke last April from his position where he was Thailand’s most popular policeman.

Top brass at Thailand’s immigration bureau at the end of the week extolled the success of Thailand’s ฿2.1 billion biometrics system to the media highlighting its track record in detected those breaking the law and incidentally netting over ฿240 million in overstay fines in the process.

It comes following a week of speculation and heightened tensions between former immigration bureau boss, Lieutenant General Surcahate Hapkarn also known as ‘Big Joke’ and Thailand’s chief of police following a gun attack on an unoccupied car driven by the latter in the Bangrak area of Bangkok where he parked it while visiting a massage parlour on Monday evening.

Big Joke told police that the shooting was linked to his opposition to the biometrics system contract

In the aftermath of the attack on his wife’s car, Lieutenant Surachate has come forward to suggest that the gun attack, in which eight bullets were fired at the lower levels of passenger doors by two well-covered riders on a motorbike, was designed to intimidate him due to his continued opposition and concerns relating to the ฿2.1 billion biometric project which developed following his appointment in 2017 as the head of the immigration bureau in what had been hitherto a meteoric rise through the ranks.

Criticised police progress in capturing those who shot at his car after making a statement on Wednesday

The news following the attack on the car captured media attention this week and initially focused on the police investigation into it which Lieutenant Surachate appeared to criticise by Wednesday, pointing to the fact that the location was surrounded by a large range of CCTV cameras coming from every intersection.

Directed his comments at the police chief

The former immigration boss, now working as a senior advisor at the Office of the Prime Minister, pointed his stinging criticism at the national police chief Police General Chakthip Chaijinda saying that if the perpetrators were not apprehended then the police chief should take responsibility.

Presented officers with information on the biometrics system – appeared before the Anti Corruption Commission on Friday as one of 13 witnesses

Big Joke’s biting comments came on Wednesday when he was summoned to Bangrak Police station to give a formal statement concerning the attack on the car.

He is reported to have presented officers with information on the biometric system and his opposition to it.

It then emerged that the National Anti-Corruption Commission was due to begin hearing witness statements on the procurement process and conduct of the biometric system project just this week. 

13 policemen in all came forward to question the biometrics system contract before the commission

Initially, the former immigration bureau boss was the only witness scheduled to appear but it later emerged that 13 witnesses including 2 police generals among them Big Joke, 10 police officers at the rank of colonel and one non-commissioned officer were to appear before the anti-corruption body with testimony in relation the biometric system project.

New border control system caused rancour between Big Joke and the national police chief

It is understood that Lieutenant General Surachate appeared before the commission on Friday to highlight his concerns about the project which is now being touted as the reason or difference of opinion which caused a rift or breakdown in the relationship between the former senior police official and the current police chief.

This has led to some speculation that it may have been the reason for the sudden and unexplained departure of Big Joke from his high profile role as immigration bureau chief last year and his transfer to civil service post.

Lawyer filed corruption complaint to the commission in May 2019 after Big Joke was transferred

The investigation into the biometric system was initiated after the anti-corruption commission received a complaint from lawyer Sittra Biabangkerd in May 2019.

Mr Sittra is a well known anti-corruption activist but is also reported to be close to the Lieutenant-General Surachate.

Doubts about the system when he took up office

On taking up his role in 2018, the new immigration bureau boss began to develop doubts about the biometric project and the contract signed to install the system which had been signed in 2017 while Big Joke was a senior officer in the Tourist Police.

Police sources gave the background to the rift

Police sources this week were available to give the background to what appears to have swelled into a personal crisis between the two top cops, the chief of the immigration bureau and the man with overall responsibility for the Royal Thai Police.

Contract awarded to a joint venture in 2017

The contract to install the biometric system was awarded to a joint venture led by Thai firm MSC Sittipol Co. in 2017. The provisional cost of the project was ฿1.73 billion.

The project was considered a necessity to bolster security in Thailand and bring the country’s immigration department up to international standards.

Former police chief initiated the scheme to bring Thailand’s border protection systems up to date

It was first orchestrated by Police Lieutenant General Nathathorn Phrosunthorn while at the helm of the Immigration Bureau but was initially pushed by former national police chief Somyot Poompunmuang after widespread concern about the porous nature of Thailand’s borders in the years up to then which was amplified due to the kingdom’s central location and its rapidly expanding tourism industry.

The biometric system was to be developed in six phases culminating in the final handover of the system in May 2019.

Tardiness in completing early stages of the contract deeply concerned Big Joke on taking up his post

It is understood that tardiness in completing the first phases of the project prompted Lieutenant General Surachate’s concern while at the helm of the immigration bureau.

The new boss wanted to act decisively and cancel the contract on the basis that the contractor had failed to deliver the project on time.

However, such a course was resisted by the national police chief who argued for continuity and who also emphasised that his priority was to ensure that the system was up and running for the 2019 ASEAN summit in Bangkok.

Later the two senior officers were not on speaking terms say police sources this week

It is believed, according to reliable sources, that the issue so rankled the relationship between the immigration bureau chief and his boss, Police General Chakthip, that by the time Police Lieutenant General Surachate was transferred from his post in April 2019, the two were not on speaking terms.

‘At that time, Police Lieutenant General Surachate and Police General Chakthip were not on friendly terms and their relations turned sour following the row over the scheme,’ the source explained.  

Current Immigration Bureau officers defended the biometric system this week to the hilt

This week, the current Head of the Immigration Bureau was in the vanguard of an information campaign to publicise the striking success of the biometric system since it came into operation last year.

Speaking with the Bangkok Post, Lieutenant General Sompong Chingduang, Big Joke’s immediate successor, accepted that there were delays but underlined the importance of continuity which the national police chief decided was more important.

Police chief wanted the system operational for 2019 and prioritised continuity to get the job done

In the aftermath of Big Joke’s removal, Lieutenant General Sompong is reported to have adopted this approach and aimed to work constructively with the contractor to install the system. 

This week, those defending the biometric system have pointed out that the cost increased from ฿1.71 billion to a final tally of ฿2.1 billion because it was decided to extend the system to all immigration entry points to Thailand across all 76 provinces.

Sources also point out that the contractor was held up in getting access to some airports.

Lawyer criticises police authorities for not penalising contractor for late delivery under contract provisions

Meanwhile, Mr Sittra, who has brought the case to the National Anti Corruption Commission, has pointed to extensive delays in all phases of the contract with one phase being overdue by nine months.

There is also a suggestion that authorities failed to penalise the contractor according to the contract provisions which provide for late penalty fines. Mr Sittra suggests that the expanded system was also installed in places where it was not needed.

Big Oud asks Big Joke about the source of his concerns

In spite of all this, the current immigration boss and senior officers enthusiastically supported the biometric system to the press this week.

Police Lieutenant General Sompong also known as ‘Big Oud’ addressed his predecessor when he asked what was the source of his reported concerns about the efficacy of the system and pointed out that the biometric system currently being deployed meets international quality standards.

Lieutenant General Sompong praised the system for helping detect and arrest international lawbreakers wanted in their own countries and also those breaking Thailand’s immigration laws.

Statistics for the system are impressive

The statistics appear to be impressive. Figures for the last 6 months show that the system has processed 48 million people entering and leaving Thailand. Over 4,300 arrests have been made including undesirable people on the country’s blacklist trying to reenter the kingdom.

In addition to this, the system has detected nearly 127,000 people attempting to leave the country who have overstayed their visas which has seen 3,166 people arrested and net fines garnered over ฿240 million.

Media invited to Don Muang Airport this week to see the biometric immigration system working

This week, senior immigration bureau officers including Major General Chuchat Tharichat showed off the system to the media at Don Mueang International Airport.

They highlighted the system’s detailed analysis of each individual passing through the airport.

Officials pointed out that over 1,300 such stations are operating to international quality standards throughout the kingdom linked with a central database.

National police chief abroad as the news erupted

The shooting on Monday occurred when the national police chief General Chakdip was abroad.

Controversy flared up again on Thursday when one of Thailand’s most senior and respected police officers Police General Wirachai Songmetta became embroiled in the wrangle.

Audio clip generated further controversy

An audio clip emerged of a phone call between the national police boss and the senior officer in which General Chakdip appeared to suggest that General Wirachai should not involve himself in the investigation into the shooting incident linked with Big Joke’s car in Bang Rak.

The police chief preferred that the matter be handled by the Metropolitan Police in the normal course of events and appeared wary of media coverage drawn to the incident.

A police spokesperson confirmed that the phone conversation was authentic while Police General Wircahai could only suggest that perhaps his phone had been tapped and would only confirm that he spoke to the police chief about the case.

Both men should clear the air – Deputy PM

Police General Wirachai later took part in a forensic test on the grounds of Royal Thai Police headquarters on the car. Afterwards, he told the press that police would soon identify the gun-type used.

Unconfirmed reports from officers linked with the case have described the shooting as an ‘odd’ occurrence which has now become the subject of intense speculation.

The controversy even drew in Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan known to be a mentor and confidant to both Big Joke and the national police chief. He indicated that it was time to clear the air between the two men.

Big Joke not surprised by the shooting

Meanwhile, Big Joke has told reporters that he was not so shocked by the shooting of his wife’s car on Monday. ‘As soon as my car has shot the masseuse was shocked but I didn’t react. I knew that this was going to happen, it was only a matter of time. I might’ve been too relaxed about it and drove alone as usual as I went along with my normal life,’ he said.

Belief in the police –  said this week he wants to return to police work when the time is right

Whatever the background or nature of the gun attack, one thing is for certain. It has opened up renewed speculation about the former policeman and his future. 

Big Joke has also this week suggested that when the time is right, he would like to return to work as a police officer.

He alluded to this in several comments this week. At one point, when asked about the prospect of catching the gunmen, he said this: ‘I believe in the police, like how I showed the people to believe in the police.’

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Further reading:

Former Immigration Bureau boss ‘Big Joke’ to bring case against the PM to get his old job back after 2019 shunt

Police top brass leading a thorough investigation into gun attack on former top cop Big Joke’s car

‘Big Joke’ replaced by ‘Big Oud’ as Deputy PM says ‘case closed’ on departure from his previous role

‘Big Joke’ – Shock as Thailand’s best known and most high profile police officer removed abruptly from post