Accessibility links

Breaking News

Thai Drug Suspect's Death While in Police Custody Drives Calls for Reform

Four police officers wanted in connection with the death of a suspect in their custody arrive at the Nakhon Sawan police station for interrogations in Nakhon Sawan province, Thailand, Aug. 25, 2021.
Four police officers wanted in connection with the death of a suspect in their custody arrive at the Nakhon Sawan police station for interrogations in Nakhon Sawan province, Thailand, Aug. 25, 2021.

The alleged killing by provincial police in the central Thai province of Nakhon Sawan of a drug suspect whose death by suffocation with a plastic bag in custody was caught on camera, has outraged the public, which is demanding reform of Thai police, notorious for a culture of abuse, impunity and corruption.

In a leaked nine-minute video, a 24-year-old suspect, Jeerapong Thanapat, is handcuffed before a senior officer allegedly pulls a plastic bag over his head, while four other officers hold the gasping man down for several minutes.

In the video, which has gone viral, the lead officer, identified as Colonel Thitisant Utthanaphon, at a police station can be heard demanding that Jeerapong give up his “stash” before he loses consciousness.

Thai police have issued arrest warrants for seven police officers for murder and torture over the Aug. 5 incident, which only surfaced publicly this week when a police whistleblower released the video.

Police say four of the men are in custody, but three others are on the run, including the station’s chief, Thitisant, who is nicknamed "Ferrari Joe" because of his sports car collection.

A raid on his luxury Bangkok villa on Wednesday revealed a collection of 30 cars -- including a Ferrari, a Lamborghini and several Porsches -- raising questions over the wealth accumulated by a 41-year-old public servant whose police salary was $1,300 a month.

Battling to control public anger, Royal Thai Police Chief Suwat Jangyodsuk, the nation’s police chief, has apologized and promised a full probe.

“Our house is dirty and it’s time to clean up,” police spokesperson Major General Ekarak Limsangkad told reporters on Wednesday, saying the four officers in custody have “confessed” to the crime.

“This is a first-degree murder charge, which carries the death penalty. We are sorting through right now how many bad apples we have. We will toss them all away … no matter the rank.”

Bad apples?

It is a rare admission from a force that critics say resists public scrutiny by reflex and transfers police officers accused of crimes to different stations rather than suspending, firing and prosecuting them if found guilty.

However, public trust in the police is at a nadir. Videos in recent weeks of unarmed pro-democracy protesters on Bangkok’s streets being beaten, kicked and shot with rubber bullets at close range by riot officers have raised questions about police brutality.

The death in custody has further crushed faith in the institution. The Ferrari Joe case has led to online comparisons with the killing by police of George Floyd in the U.S., while many Thai pro-democracy activists have taken photos with plastic bags over their heads and changed their social media profile photos as the death is linked to the country’s wider issues with hierarchy and unchecked power.

“The violent culture and abuses within the police force and army have taken a deep root,” said Prajak Kongkirati, a political scientist at Thammasat University.

“This incident is not about tossing out ‘bad apples’ to fix a problem. It’s about the attainment of power and the culture of impunity that is far beyond public scrutiny,” he said.

In Thailand police and army top brass trade influence over politics and business, with generals and senior police officers going on to serve as prime ministers or heads of large companies, or rising into the inner circle of the palace, Thailand’s top source of power.

Police reform has long been argued for.

Soon after seizing power in a 2014 coup the government of Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general, pledged a cleanup of a notoriously corrupt force.

Experts say, though, the rigid police hierarchy, in which loyalty to senior officers outweighs the pursuit of justice as well as a pay-to-play culture inside many stations which drives rampant bribe-taking, has blocked serious reforms.

Even establishment figures who are normally public backers of the status quo across Thai power have been outraged by the Ferrari Joe case.

“Prayuth’s government must reform the police force: uproot, dismantle the entire structure,” Warong Dechgitvigrom, a prominent ultraconservative former politician, wrote on his Facebook page.

More videos have been leaked of other purported torture episodes inside police stations, as the Thai internet erupts in anger at the death in custody.

One Bangkok officer, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, welcomed the rare public airing of police abuses but warned: “This is not the first death -- it’s just the first death in custody caught on camera.”

True reform, the officer said, has to come from above because the rank-and-file follow orders -- no matter how egregious -- as they are poorly paid and often the family breadwinners.

Over time that leads “some cops to fall into the power trap, because power is too sweet. But this scandal might shake the entire organization,” he said.

  • 16x9 Image

    VOA News

    The Voice of America provides news and information in more than 40 languages to an estimated weekly audience of over 326 million people. Stories with the VOA News byline are the work of multiple VOA journalists and may contain information from wire service reports.