Man for all reasons

If anyone can start the much-needed reform of the Royal Thai Police, it's retired Gen Boonsrang Niumpradit, the most accomplished army general no one has heard of. (Photo via Twitter/@wassanananuam)

If you really were up against it, had to stop all the generalising and nonsense political talk and get down, really seriously down, to one set of reforms in one tough place that really, really needs reform, where would you choose?

That's the correct answer, and here's why. The Royal Thai Police can actually be reformed. It will be a very tough job, with more resistance and back-stabbing than an acupuncture session. But this time, after three long years of hot air and bluffing, the general prime minister has made the correct choice.

Or, rather, choices. Real reform -- let's call it reform to make a difference -- needs political will, political capital, political appointments who can deliver.

What's that, sir, why not education? Well, education needs to be taken by the throat to be choked almost to death, no doubt about it. It needs vast changes, but your normal, ordinary reform won't work. The education bureaucracy runs from the tip of the ministry iceberg to the bottom of the teaching chain, and it is more powerful than a locomotive. It has ignored and will continue to merely absorb structured reform. Education has to be attacked on multiple levels.

But if there is chance to reform the police, who but a coup government could do it better? "Only Nixon could go to China" as the cliche has it, and historically, the army has always put down uppity police. This coming round will be ... let's call it "interesting".

Back to those wise choices.

First, foremost and possibly decisively is the coupmeister's choice of reform chiefs.

Retired Gen Boonsrang Niumpradit is probably the best high-ranking Thai military officer that the general public has never heard of. He is honest, honourable and accomplished. In other words he is personally what the RTP should be but definitely aren't.

He is a West Point graduate. That means he showed terrific tenacity and has a fine education from one of the world's very top military universities. But it means more. Soldiers who emerge successfully from, specifically, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Royal Military College Duntroon and the US Military Academy West Point share one attribute above all: honour.

The editor provides too small a space for Gen Boonsrang's CV. So, two key excerpts. He was the force commander of all UN peacekeepers in peeling off East Timor and making it a world-class country at the turn of the century. His English-language memoir, 410 Days in East Timor: A Peace Keeper's Diary, is a UN bible. Then he served two years, 2006-08, as supreme commander of the Royal Thai Armed Forces. By constant personal contacts with Khmer defence chief Tea Banh, he kept cool all the attempts by the Democrats to spark war with Cambodia.

If you believe you know the mettle of a man by his enemies, Gen Boonsrang meets the test. It took literally minutes for those "high-ranking police sources" to start attempts to undermine him. Police, of course, want a policeman to reform the force. By that they mean more specifically that they want a policeman not to reform it. Police think "reform" should shuffle departments and bureaus, appoint several more big bosses and add more offices. Gen Boonsrang does not.

As head of a 36-person reform committee with powers that come directly from the head of the junta, he wants to accomplish three goals by next March. Two of them (remember West Point?) are directly tied to honour.

He wants transparency and accountability throughout the Royal Thai Police and an end to cosy regional or class relationships. He wants to wipe out the greatest corruption side of the RTP, the sale and purchase of promotions and assignments. That alone is worth tens if not hundreds of millions of baht every year in money percolating upwards. It is why senior police want no part of reform.

And thirdly, Gen Boonsrang wants efficiency. That's easy to say, but to get there will require extensive training, retraining, elimination of red tape, adoption of technology -- think the traffic policeman controlling red lights or standing in the intersection waving cars through.

For the next few months, police reform is going to be in a slow cooker. But early next year it will be slapped into a screaming hot pan, as Gen Boonsrang's report emerges. Top police and their influential friends will be goong den, naked raw prawns on a hotplate, dancing and trying to avoid the heat.

Applying the reforms will require harsh measures, lack of compromise and amounts of integrity seldom seen even at the top of government. Nothing else will succeed.

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