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Pol Maj Gen Surachet Hakpal is the deputy commissioner of the Tourist Police Bureau but he has been seen everywhere over the last year both in Thailand and abroad. He has busted guides, call center gangs, romance scammers, street racers – the lot.
Called “Big Joke” in the Thai media he is affectionately known as “Joke Waan Jiap” – Joke that is sweeter than sweet. (Joke is a breakfast food of rice gruel not known for being sweet).
But there is nothing funny about this high profile cop. And criminals arrested by him know that behind the “sweet” smile is a steely resolve.
Manager said that he enjoys very high connections and is someone who can pop in and out of the house of people like Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. Everyone knows Surachet due to his high profile and now he is known as a “Person of Great Prestige” (Phuu Maak Baaramee).
Surachet started his interview saying that technology based crime that is conducted through social media especially Facebook represents a big change from the past. Previously ponzi and pyramid schemes were all the rage – but these have declined behind crimes like romance scams and call center crime.
Crackdowns on call centers have seen the business all but wiped out but it is an ongoing process.
There are at least three victims a week of romance scammers, he said. He blamed people of color from Uganda, Nigeria and Cameroon.
He said that such nationals come in on tourist visas for 7 days and never leave. He said there were 100,000 over stayers as little as two years ago. This number is now down to 40,000 after his efforts.
They are masquerading in religious fields, as teachers or footballers. They are involved in drugs, human trafficking and money laundering.
Surachet praised head of the Royal Thai Police Chakthip Chaijinda for creating a better organisational structure enabling people like him to do their work in a spirit of improved cooperation.
Agreements between different sections of the force as well as vastly improved cooperation with banks, foreign police forces and other agencies mean police can perform better.
He singled out a much better relationship with the National Telecommunications and Broadcasting Commission (NTBC) as helping greatly in the work against cyber criminals and people using the internet and social media.
Referencing the recent arrest of a Cambodian national he said it was right and proper that people spreading fake news about the Prime Minister – in this case comments about telling the public to use water instead of gas if they were worried about high prices – should be arrested.
As far as people being arrested for clicking “like” on such stories – six people were – he said that they would not end up in court. He said it should be seen as just a warning to people to be careful what they share as news such as this is defamatory and damaging.
He described his work as apolitical. He said he wants a safer society and avowed that wherever people need him and his team he will be there. He used the term in English: “One World – One Team” in describing both his work and that of the RTP in general.
He said that the proliferation and ease of obtaining unregistered SIM cards had presented law enforcement with big problems in Thailand. Unlike countries where SIMS are restricted in number some agents were able to use one name to register 10,000 chips in Thailand. The tightening up of this and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) matters with the cooperation of the five main mobile service providers has made a big difference in what he can achieve.
He was asked about illegal betting in Thailand that remains widespread but subject to continual crackdowns especially at World Cup time. The competition begins this week and always sees a spike in illegal betting and police work.
In regards to betting he referenced human trafficking. In that crime he was going after not just the pimps and procurers but the end users – people who paid for sex with the under aged or illegally trafficked.
It was the same with betting – it was not just the big guys who run betting that were at risk of arrest now – the actual people betting could be arrested in their own homes as they access the internet.
The days when it was all about the illegal Tote at the racecourses in Bangkok are over, he said. Even in terms of horse race betting it has nothing to do with the track any more – it is all online.
But he predicted that within 5 years the problem of illegal horse race betting in Thailand would die out. He said that the young had no interest in it – they wanted to bet on other things.
Then he turned his attention to street racers – motorcyclists who meet regularly to race on public roads and annoy the public.
He said that local forces do what they can but they need the help of people like him to work with technology to root out the ringleaders who use social media to arrange the races. He said that 70 ring leaders had been arrested recently and in Bangkok at least this meant that the gangs had been forced to go elsewhere.
They were now causing annoyance in Ayuthaya, Phutthamonthon, Pathum Thani and further afield in Pattaya.
But he vowed to keep going after them and crush them – and asked for the help from the public in reporting their whereabouts.
The Maj Gen is often seen at police press conferences and he touched on this aspect of his work.
He said it was important to reassure the public that the police were working hard for them and that they could have confidence in the RTP.
“I can work anywhere,” he said. “We say press conferences are just 15% of what we do. We do it to assure the public. But that is all it is – we need to work behind the scenes so that the public see a real difference and it is not just show”.
“Everything should be for the benefit of the public not me or my team”, said the Maj Gen.
He spoke of his work on rooting out illegal guides, illegal tours and what is known as zero tours that have damaged the country and tourism so much.
Talking about the Chinese in particular he said: “We want them to enjoy our great culture like the Grand Palace – and not be taken to some rip-off jewelers by tour organizers”.
The massive increase in tourism has meant that criminals have come too – it was inevitable that crime would increase along with tourism as opportunists used tourism to hide and carry out illegal activities in Thailand.
He spoke of Burmese and Vietnamese pickpockets who prey on tourists at Pratunam area shopping centers like Platinum and Panthip or at the Grand Palace.
“They fly in for the weekend,” he said.”When they have ten or 15 iPhones they fly back and sell them in their home bases. We find out who they are and then they change their passports and come back again.
“This is why we need to invest in biometric technology to stop this kind of thing”.
Many people – especially foreigners – wonder how a deputy commissioner of the Tourist Police can be the highest profile cop in the land, at least in terms of public recognition and handling of so many widespread cases.
Surachet said that he enjoys the co-operation of people high up and the whole of the force.
“I don’t mind what I am doing but we insist on cooperation and we are getting it from all quarters. The trust of the public is what is important.
“If we do good things public confidence will increase. We need to be mindful to get this confidence,” he said in comments that will ring true to a public jaded by police corruption and scandals.
“We will be forgiven for our mistakes if we do as well as we can and have the public interest at heart”.
He reiterated that he was able to do what he does because of widespread agreement among different arms of the police and in political circles.
Finally he was asked about his “Joke” name. He said he has been called this for ages and of course he didn’t mind the moniker.
“I’m easy going,” he said. “My friends call me that and it’s OK.
“My nickname doesn’t matter – what does matter is that we must be resolute and detailed in our work for the good of the public”.