In January this year, the former immigration police chief appeared before the Anti Corruption Commission after a lawyer, in May 2019, one month after his removal from his post, wrote to it concerning the national biometric and database system installed by the Immigration Bureau. It is understood that Lieutenant General Surachate, prior to his abrubt departure, wanted to cancel the system due to delays in its installation. This is understood to have led to a conflict with his superiors. However, no reason has ever been given for the removal of the former police star either by himself or the government since April last year.
The bizarre story of the removal of one of Thailand’s most successful and high profile policemen has taken another turn with the news that lawyers acting on behalf of former Immigration Bureau Chief Lieutenant General Surachate Hapkarn, also known affectionately as ‘Big Joke’, are preparing to bring a suit against the Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, to the Administrative Court claiming that his removal and transfer to a civil service position in April 2019 was illegal. The case may ultimately lead to questions about the sweeping Section 44 powers formerly exercised by the PM during his tenure as junta chief from 2014 to the summer of last year.
Police Lieutenant Surachate Hapkarn or ‘Big Joke’ is reported to be gearing up to issue legal proceedings against Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, in the Administrative Court linked to his removal from his position as Immigration Bureau Chief in early April 2019.
On the 5th April 2019, the outgoing National Police Chief, General Chakthip Chaijinda, signed an order removing the then trailblazing Immigration Bureau boss from his position to an inactive post at the Royal Thai Police headquarters in Bangkok.
Shock removal led to massive speculation last year
For several days, this was the subject of intense media speculation as such moves are usually reserved for officers who have committed some infraction or who are under investigation.
It quickly became clear that this was not the position in this case.
However, the bizarre nature of Lieutenant General’s Surachate’s story became even more apparent following a move on April 9th 2019 when a Section 44 order signed by the Prime Minister himself, was issued.
This transferred the leading police officer to a new role as a civil servant assigned to the Office of the Prime Minister where key officials at the time, questioned by the press, had no clear idea what the new job for the policeman entailed.
General Prayut signed the order in his capacity, also, as the Chief of the National Council for Peace and Order which, despite the March 2019 General Election, still ruled Thailand into the summer of last year.
Prime Minister’s use of Junta’s Section 44 powers likely to be central to any case that may be taken
The legal case, if it comes before the court, is likely to involve some discussion on the extraordinary powers wielded by the Prime Minister during his tenure as chief of the junta administration which had the effect of overriding both laws and regulations.
By this order, the police chief was moved to the civil service and appointed as an advisor to the Prime Minister’s Office. No further explanation was given.
Reports, at the time, suggested that Lieutenant General Surachate was seen at Government House where he had a meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam as to his new duties followed later by unconfirmed reports that he was taking the opportunity to holiday in the United States.
Former dynamic and reforming police officer now to claim his removal from his post was illegal
The former Immigration Bureau Chief is well known to foreigners in Thailand for his dynamic and tough reforms while briefly in charge of Thailand’s Immigration Bureau including a crackdown on abuses.
Now, it is understood that the nature of the legal case being brought by Lieutenant General Surachate is a claim that his transfer from his position in 2019 was illegal.
Lawyers for the ex-policeman are reported to be preparing the case under instructions from him.
They are likely to claim that there was no sound reason or justification for his removal from his former position as he had never been the subject of an official investigation for wrongdoing by public prosecutors, the National Audit Office or the Anti Corruption Commission.
Mystery fueled by lack of commentary from both the policeman and government officials on his removal and transfer without notice in April 2019
The mystery of Big Joke’s story is that he has never commented publicly on his removal except that it has become known, in recent months, that the former police officer is determined to try to return to service in the Royal Thai Police as a policeman which he sees as his vocation.
Fast track to success as a policeman
‘Big Joke’ got his nickname from a pun based on a bitter rice gruel which the officer enjoyed as a police cadet.
He later went on, as a serving police officer, to successfully manage a police station, have a distinguished career within Bangkok’s legendary 191 crime-fighting task force which deals on a daily basis with scammers, fraudsters, drug dealers and a host of underworld crime which in recent years, up to the Covid 19 virus, had become linked with foreigners entering Thailand from Africa particularly Nigeria.
Indeed, during Lieutenant General Surachate’s tenure, at one point, as Immigration Bureau boss, police officers announced that they were considering an investigation into all Nigerians and other Africans in Thailand officially due to the numbers that had been arrested for crimes ranging from online fraud to drug dealing.
This drew a caution from Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission in early 2019 with the body warning all police agencies against taking any action which may be considered as profiling.
Reports suggest that ‘Big Joke’ was a key confidante and ally of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan
From the 191 force, Lieutenant General Surachate was moved to the Tourist Police where he once came to the rescue of a gay Canadian who was being set up to be blackmailed by a corrupt police officer at a local Bangkok police station in a hotel room sting.
By immediately reacting to the foreigner’s complaint, verifying his story and nabbing the corrupt police officer red-handed, Big Joke successfully resolved the issue.
Many regarded this decisive nature in addition to what was reported as the former policeman’s position as a close confidante of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, for ensuring his rapid rise to become the Head of the Immigration Bureau in late 2018 while also being tipped as a future national police chief.
Reports of a conflict with superiors over the biometric database system installed at the Immigration Bureau
It has been suggested, strongly, that the reason for Lieutenant General Surachate’s removal from office may be a reported conflict with the outgoing National Police Chief, General Chakdip, over plans to rapidly install a live and comprehensive database within the bureau linked with all of Thailand’s entry and exit points, in what was considered a key move to help filter out undesirable aliens that many senior police officers saw as driving crime in Thailand.
In January this year, the former Immigration Bureau boss appeared before the National Anti Corruption Commission after a lawyer, believed to be close to the former top cop, wrote to the body a month after he was removed, making a representation to it and calling for an investigation into the procurement of the database system.
Anti-corruption lawyer wrote to the Anti Corruption Commission just after Big Joke’s removal
Sittra Biabangkerd, a well known anti-corruption activist, wrote to the Anti Corruption Commission in May 2019 and Lieutenant General Surachate gave evidence to the commission in January this year along with over a dozen other police officers.
The appearance of Lieutenant General Surachate before the panel also coincided with a bizarre incident where a car he was driving was shot up by a helmeted motorcyclist while he was frequenting an establishment in central Bangkok.
The investigation of this incident subsequently also led to a conflict between the National Police Chief and another senior officer, Deputy Police Chief General Wirachai Songmetta, who was dismissed from office in early September by the government.
Became a monk this year and visited India in his quest to find a way back to the job he loved and was good at
In recent months, ‘Big Joke’ has been ordained as a monk and even travelled in January to a sacred temple in India as he made it known that his quest was to be restored to his former life as a police officer.
It now appears that he is bringing his case to the appropriate legal authorities in Thailand in his efforts to regain his position.
PM instructs lawyers to prepare a defence
It is understood that the Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, has tasked his own legal affairs team to defend him in the case.
The prime minister has, like the former police officer, also consistently refused to comment on the transfer of Lieutenant General Surachate to his paid civil service position in April 2019.
At the end of January, this year, the Prime Minister issued a formal reprimand to the policeman linked to the controversy generated by his shot out car in Bangkok.
Big Joke was ordered to observe official codes of conduct.
At the same time, disciplinary action was initiated against Deputy Police Chief, General Wirachai Songmetta, for disobeying an order.
No probe into Big Joke’s role as a police chief
Following the transfer of Lieutenant General Surachate to the Office of the Prime Minister last year, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, then in charge of the police, a job now handled by the prime minister himself, confirmed that the former police chief was not the subject of any enquiry or disciplinary proceedings.
It is reported that over 90 similar transfers have taken place to date with the vast majority later returning to their original posts while others have taken up retirement options.