Thailand’s police have launched a manhunt for a former police chief who allegedly tortured and killed a drug suspect in police custody earlier this month. Col. Thitisan “Chief Joe” Uttanapol, until recently the chief of a police station in Nakhon Sawan province, disappeared after the recent appearance of leaked video showing police officers killing a drug suspect while trying to extort 2 million baht from him, National Police Chief Suwat Jangyodsuk said yesterday.
The nine-minute video clip (graphic content warning) shows an officer wrapping a plastic bag around the drug suspect’s head and beating him as others hold him down. The suspect then loses consciousness, prompting failed attempts to revive him. Nakhon Sawan police initially issued a report stating that the man, whom the Bangkok Post has identified as 24-year-old Jeerapong Thanapat, died of a drug overdose.
The gruesome CCTV footage, which was reportedly leaked by a junior officer horrified at witnessing the suspect’s killing, has generated considerable public anger in Thailand, forcing the Royal Thai Police to take the rare step of investigating one of their own.
Arrest warrants have also been issued against six other policemen for torture and murder of Jeerapong, four of whom are now in custody. Police investigating the case say they believe Thitisan is still hiding in the country and have ordered border checkpoints to be closely monitored. When police raided Chief Joe’s Bangkok villa yesterday, they reportedly discovered 30 cars including a Ferrari 488 GTB, a Lamborghini Aventador LP720-4, and several models of Porsche, testaments to the corruption that festers at the heart of the Thai security state.
The torture and killing is no isolated incident. Beginning in 2003 under then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Thai police carried out a notorious “war on drugs,” redolent of the ongoing campaign in the Philippines, that resulted in the deaths of at least 2,819 suspected drug traffickers, according to Human Rights Watch, many of which appeared to be extrajudicial killings.
The corruption and impunity of the Thai police will come as little surprise to many Thais, but the shocking leaked footage has nonetheless generated a storm of protest, prompting some netizens to draw comparisons with the police murder of George Floyd that sparked protests over racial injustice in the United States last year. As of today, the version of the video posted to YouTube had been viewed nearly 650,000 times, in addition to many more on other social media platforms.
Coming in the midst of a simmering anti-government protest movement that has taken aim at the predominant role of the security forces in Thai politics, as well as the unaccountable power of the Thai monarchy, the video is only likely to catalyze more opposition, and harden what opposition already exists.
Although the police have taken the necessary step of seeking justice, the graphic and explicit nature of the footage gave them little choice. “It takes a lot – and I mean a lot – for the #Thai police to investigate one of their own,” Zachary Abuza of the National War College wrote on Twitter. “#Thai security forces have such a degree of impunity that they didn’t think twice to do this right in front of the office’s CCTV.”
All this makes a deeper reckoning with impunity unlikely. Indeed, were it not for the bravery of a junior officer who leaked the footage, this case, like many others, would have likely remained concealed from public view, the death written up as an overdose – and quickly forgotten.
As Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch told VICE News, “This isn’t just a problem of rogue officers, but a chronic lack of oversight and accountability in police work that allows serious abuses to happen again and again.”