Bangkok bombing: Why are Thai police still holding crime reenactments?

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 10, 2015

As investigations around the Bangkok deadly bomb attacks continue, the Thai police paraded a main suspect around the scene of the blast in a public reenactment. But why is this odd practice still being carried out?

You wouldn’t notice that not too long ago something happened here at this busy intersection in central Bangkok. That’s how cleaned up and restored the popular Erawan Shrine looks like after a deadly bomb attack on August 17 killed 20 people and injured 150. Three and a half weeks later, the Thai police are still hunting for perpetuators of the crime but believe that they have closed in on them.

Despite the rushed reopening of the shrine and an investigation full of contradictions and controversy (most notably the police rewarding themselves the investigation money), the authorities are claiming to have a direction in the search for the culprits and have issued multiple arrest warrants, including who police think is the 'main organizer' of the bomb attack.

Thai authorities have also made two arrests within a short period of time: an unknown foreigner on August 29 in an apartment on the outskirts of Bangkok and another man named by Thai police as Yusufu Mieraili, a Chinese national arrested in an attempt to cross the border into Cambodia on September 1 (we reported). The latter was initially presented as the "main suspect”, but later Thai officials admitted that Mieralli is "a conspirator”, meaning the bomber himself (depicted in CCTV footage and police sketches as a young man in a yellow t-shirt), who left the backpack with the explosive device at the shrine, still remains at large.

Nevertheless, Thai police are certain that they have made significant progress with these two arrests (hence why probably the police rewarded the investigation money to themselves despite the ongoing investigations), which explains why they - with the second suspect and droves of media members in tow - came back to Ratchaprasong Intersection on Wednesday morning, the very same crime scene of the bomb attack, to conduct a long-used, yet questionable staple of Thai police work: the public crime reenactment.

Like the reenactment on Tuesday at an apartment on the outskirts of Bangkok, suspect Mieraili was paraded around the area at Ratchaprasong Intersection and Hua Lamphong railway station, retracing his steps he allegedly made on August 17 before, during and after the deadly bomb attack (including handing over the backpack with the bomb to the main suspect). All that happened in public accompanied by a large contingent of police officers, photographers and cameramen.

With the investigation still ongoing and no conviction made in the Bangkok bombing case, why are Thai police still resorting to this very public and, for some, seemingly bizarre method of ‘fact-finding’?

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While public crime reenactments are common police procedure in Thailand, albeit usually not at this scale, its effectiveness has been questioned for a while now, despite police officers insisting on its "necessity” for the authorities themselves and also for the public:

A Metropolitan Police specialist said a re-enactment is important for an investigation because each criminal or each gang behaves differently in committing a crime. Details on how criminals commit each crime help the police understand the pattern of a crime. This can help them track down other criminals showing the same behaviour pattern and help reduce the loss of life and property.

Crime re-enactments must be kept for future investigation, he said.

"Legal experts query need for crime re-enactment", The Nation, June 17, 2014

What is presented here as an argument for collecting intelligence on criminal activity is in reality more a sideshow: during an reenactment, the suspect mostly is instructed by the police to act out how they think the crime took place, practically 'directing' the suspects like a movie director regardless whether they’re guilty or not.

Such scenes took place for example in the reenactment of the murder of two British tourists on the island of Koh Tao last year (we reported) - another high-profile police investigation overshadowed by doubt - where the two main suspects were brought to the crime scene to confirm the officials’ version. And bizarrely, two foreign journalists among the accompanying media were asked to stand in for the victims.

It is these perceived conclusions the police are drawing from these reenactments that is being criticized by rights activists:

Top human rights lawyer and chairman of Amnesty International Thailand Somchai Hom-laor said criminal suspects should be treated as innocent until proven otherwise by the courts, adding that the re-enactment of crime, which often sees an angry mob attacking the suspect, is contradictory to the rule of law and the justice process.

"The re-enactment of crime is like reinforcing that the person has committed crime," said Somchai, adding that going soft on angry mobs, who seek to physically attack suspects during the re-enactment, is tantamount to encouraging "private vendettas", which contravene the justice system.

"Acting out crimes is necessary: police", The Nation, July 4, 2013

Indeed, the main credo of the Thai justice system for the accused seems to be in many cases ”guilty until proven innocent”. In the case of Bangkok bombing suspect, it didn’t help that for some inexplicable reason he was wearing a yellow t-shirt (see photo above) - like the bomber in the CCTV footage - under a bulletproof vest during the reenactments.

These reenactments are normally done after a suspect has confessed of his or her crime - which is noteworthy since Yusufu Mieraili reportedly made one in the apparent absence of any legal representation for him. But in court that shouldn’t matter anyways according to the law:

For criminal cases liable to over five years imprisonment, the court will not consider suspects' testimony during police investigations, whether confessions or denials. A confession is not enough for conviction and police must provide evidence to prove that suspects committed a crime. If a suspect reverses his confession during a trial, then the re-enactment is meaningless [...]

"Legal experts query need for crime re-enactment", The Nation, June 17, 2014

So, if these reenactments have no weight in court, why are police still doing them anyways?

One possible answer could be the media presence at these events, as police officers often invite them to witness the procedure. In general, the relationship between the Thai media and police can at times result from oddities in form of ad-vertabim crime/police reports to downright ethically questionable actions, such as the premature publication of the victim's identity. Regardless of the presence of any substantial and hard evidence or the progress of the investigation itself, Thai authorities want to be seen in command, proactive and knowledgable, which not only often results in contradictions, but also what essentially boils down to ritualized PR theatrics such as the public crime reenactment or the also popular victim-pointing-at-the-suspect-at-a-press-conference (this particular incident ended with the victim assaulting her alleged attacker).

Nearly a month after what's described as the worst attack in Bangkok, Thai authorities are undeniably under high pressure to show results of their ongoing investigation. But it's high profile cases like these where Thai authorities are sometimes showing results not to resolve a crime but just for the sake of it.