I Went on a Ride-along With Thailand’s Toughest Cops
I was in southern Thailand on a trip to research the government’s low-boil war with Islamist insurgents — and I had a very hard time getting the Royal Thai Police to talk to me.
Though the Royal Thai Army has earned the least notoriety and most prestige, the RTP has found itself fighting at the forefront of an insurgency in Patani, an Islamic historical region where Malay Muslim rebels have long fought a Thai Buddhist government.
Perhaps the cold reception wasn’t so surprising. Notorious for abusing human rights in southern Thailand and the rest of the country, the RTP had questioned my motives for asking to interview its officers. I first submitted a list of questions to an RTP police station, but the officers didn’t answer them.
I was still determined to get my interviews. Little did I expect that it would take some connections, a dreadfully boring meal with a police colonel in a lunchroom full of feral cats … and a ride-along with cops on a road known for insurgent IED attacks.
Having been shut out by the RTP, my interpreter — more resourceful than I was — called her friend in Pattani, one of Thailand’s Malay-majority provinces. He was a plainclothes police officer who could connect us with his superior, Col. Panya Karawa-non.
When my interpreter’s friend greeted us, I noticed that he was wearing not only jeans and a polo shirt but also a handgun around his waist.
I would have expected a subtler disguise from a plainclothes officer, I thought, remembering how the Myanmarese cop who accosted me for infiltrating an exclusion zone had dressed like a university student. Maybe this is why the RTP is losing the war.
Karawa-non invited us to lunch at what appeared to be his station’s outdoor cafe, which about a dozen cats inhabited … for some reason. Feral cats are normal in Southeast Asia, but this cat-infested lunchroom was odd, unusual and unsanitary. It smelled of felines and undercooked rice.
“What would you like to know?” Karawa-non asked, stroking one of the many cats like a low-budget supervillain might. I told him that my university was sponsoring me to research human rights in southern Thailand, and he replied, as all other government officials tended to, that the RTP always respected human rights but that “the insurgents” never did.
Listening to him repeat the same points for more than 20 minutes, I debated whether I should have napped in my air-conditioned hotel room instead of coming to watch a police officer play with underfed felines. As luck would have it, another officer phoned Karawa-non, interrupting him from continuing his lecture on Westerners criticizing the military and police too much.
The caller was Maj. Gen. Krissakorn Pleethanyawong. Karawa-non led the police in Sai Buri, a district of Pattani. Pleethanyawong led all police in Pattani, and he was mobilizing 10 officers or so — including the ones in this station — to a crime scene.
“Would you like to come for a ride-along?” my interpreter’s friend asked us.
“Of course,” I said. I now had a reason to justify leaving my hotel room.
My interpreter looked afraid. Thai-American journalist Don Pathan, who had introduced her to me and helped me arrange many of my interviews, had warned us of only one danger.
“The rebels don’t target foreigners because they like foreigners — international observers bring the rebellion good press,” Pathan told me. “Don’t take any rides with policemen or soldiers though. The rebels have no problem blowing up government vehicles regardless of who’s in them. I’ve had to avoid several of those situations.”
“Are you sure you really want to do this?” my interpreter asked.
“Definitely,” I said. Cautionary advice had never stopped me before.
Pleethanyawong arrived in an SUV. Even though his driver had a bulletproof vest, I wondered why the RTP officers refrained from using combat vehicles when military bases and police stations across southern Thailand seemed to have so many.
The rebels used IEDs more often than firearms.
In any case, we arranged that Pleethanyawong would drive us to the crime scene and Karawa-non would return us to the station. My interpreter and I sat in the back as the SUV rolled out of the station. We passed through three checkpoints, one manned by the military.
“Do you have any questions for me?” Pleethanyawong asked. He too claimed that the RTP defended human rights rather than abused them. These interviews were becoming redundant.
I decided to text my girlfriend instead of asking more questions. She asked me to stay safe, and, for the second time on my three-country summer adventure, I considered whether it might have been wiser to stay home. Pleethanyawong started talking again.
“There was a murder a few kilometers from here,” he said. “This area is along the coast, so we can’t exclusively blame the insurgents. There are many criminals here: smugglers, drug dealers, human traffickers, and so on… The insurgency has abated somewhat. The crime has not.”
“What might it have been?” I asked.
“Maybe a drug deal gone wrong,” he replied, smiling as though Southeast Asia’s history of problems with narcotics presented a smaller problem than the insurgency.
Five other vehicles, two from the Thahan Phran paramilitary organization, awaited us. Some of the officers photographed the crime scene, which turned out to be a grass-covered ditch. Most of the others wandered around the road, looking bored, confused and lost.
Pleethanyawong skimmed a handful of Thai documents before giving them to Karawa-non, who, as far as I could tell, had no idea what to do with them.
“That’s it,” the major general told us. “Thanks for coming.”
I had experienced a ride-along with the police in southern Thailand, which, overall, sounded more exciting than it was. I would rate the experience as underwhelming.
We rode back to the station with Karawa-non and my interpreter’s friend, who drove the SUV. “Look!” my interpreter told me. She pointed to an assault rifle in the seat next to us. The rifle’s owner had neglected to remove the ammunition, endangering whatever passengers sat in the back of this SUV. My interpreter and I had the luck of being those passengers.
I accepted that roaming Pattani with a fashion-challenged plainclothes police officer and his commanding officer could have been more disappointing and that, either way, the rebels had refrained from exploding us or otherwise killing us.
My interpreter and I posed for photos in front of the station. Her dad, who had driven us there, waited at the cafe accompanied by three multicolored cats. One of them was napping — as I had wanted to do. Karawa-non rested his hand on my shoulder.
“Thank you for coming all the way from America,” he said. “It’s very rare that we see students like you here.”
“Thank you for meeting me,” I replied. “It’s been an experience.” He seemed satisfied and wished us goodbye, waving as we departed the station and returned to my hotel.
Most of my day had involved sitting in cars or on chairs, none comfortable. Living in southern Thailand proved joyless, quick to bore any journalist or tourist.
I recalled watching Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation earlier that week. Thai policemen should be more like Ethan Hunt, I joked to myself. A Westerner might have thought that joke funny, but there were few Westerners in this part of southern Thailand and I didn’t see any Americans.
The photos on my phone showed armored police officers with assault rifles investigating a crime scene. At least I could convince my friends that the ride-along had been exciting enough to warrant an hour drive, a sore back, and — worst of all — a nap-less afternoon.
“Worth it,” I told myself.