Siam Voices

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’?

Embed from Getty Images

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.

UK GT200 distributor found guilty of fraud - but what about Thailand?

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 29, 2013

A British businessman has been convicted for selling the bogus GT200 bomb detector. Gary Bolton, the former director of Global Technology Ltd, was found guilty of fraud by the UK's Central Criminal Court on two counts on Friday.

The prosecution said he sold them for up to £10,000 [$15,300] each, claiming they could detect explosives. The trial heard the company had a £3m [$4,6m] annual turnover selling the homemade devices. (...)

Richard Whittam QC, prosecuting, told the court that Bolton knew the devices - which were also alleged to be able to detect drugs, tobacco, ivory and cash - did not work but supplied them anyway to be sold to overseas businesses.

"Gary Bolton guilty of selling fake bomb detectors", BBC News, July 26, 2013

Earlier this year in May, the same court sentenced James McCormick to 10 years imprisonment for selling the similar, non-functioning ADE-651 device mostly to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Both the ADE-651 and the GT200 were advertised to detect explosive materials and other chemicals by inserting the appropriate "sensor cards" into the device's plastic grip and erecting a swiveling antenna mounted on it to search for the desired substance. The manufacturers claimed that the devices did not need any batteries but only the user's static electricity. Both devices have been found to be utterly ineffective.

In 2010 BBC Newsnight exposed the devices to be nothing but an empty plastic shell with an attached dowsing rod and plastic cards with "nothing to program on" that were sold to dozens of countries. Upon these revelations, the United Kingdom banned the export of all such devices.

Also on the effectiveness of the device:

Further stringent "double-blind" tests carried out on the GT200 by Dr Michael Sutherland of the University of Cambridge found that it worked successfully twice in 24 tests searching for TNT, which was less than the probability of finding the explosives at random.

"Gary Bolton guilty of selling fake bomb detectors", BBC News, July 26, 2013

Thailand was arguably the biggest customer and procured 818 GT200 devices for the Thai military and at least 13 other government agencies since 2004, paying 900,000-1.2 million Baht (US$27,000-36,000) per unit - a reported total of about  800-900 million Baht (US$21 million). Among the customers was reportedly the post-coup military junta, which ordered the devices in 2006. A majority of 535 bomb detectors was used by the army in the South of Thailand to tackle the ongoing separatist insurgency, where attacks with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are a common occurrence.

With the emergence of the BBC report in 2010, the government of then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva ordered tests on the GT200's effectiveness - with unsurprising, but still shocking results:

The government will not buy any more GT200 substance detectors after test results showed the device performs worse than a roll of the dice. (...)

The tests consisted of 20 trials in which explosives were placed in one of four boxes. The device succeeded in recording just four correct readings.

"Abhisit scraps GT200 orders", Bangkok Post, February 17, 2010

Just to clarify the results: flipping a coin would be more accurate than using the GT200. It is difficult to assess how many people fell victim to the bogus GT200, but numerous incidents in the past indicate that the device either failed to detect actual explosives (with deathly consequences) or gave false positives. Furthermore, a false positive also paved way for potentially false arrests:

Soldiers have used the devices during security sweeps of ethnic Malay Muslim communities or at security checkpoints, contending that the movement of a rotating antenna on the devices can find traces of explosives or gunpowder on suspects' bodies. Civil rights lawyers in the network of the Muslim Attorney Council say that since 2007 about 10 percent of suspected insurgents have been arrested on the basis of a GT200 reading.

Officials at the Justice Ministry told Human Rights Watch that GT200 readings cannot be used as evidence in court. However, Thai military forces consider GT200 readings a valid basis for exercising arrest and detention powers under the 2005 Executive Decree on Government Administration in Emergency Situations (Emergency Decree).

"Thailand: Stop Using Discredited Explosives Detector", Human Rights Watch, February 17, 2010

The question now is, three years after the revelations of the bogus nature of the bomb sniffing device, whether or not Thai authorities are still using it? Last year at this time, we reported on army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha's conflicting statements, saying it was still used by the army in the South and at the same time saying that 4th Army Region in the South is NOT using it anymore. Nevertheless, he still fexpressed his faith in the GT200, as did supreme commander Thanasak Patimaprakorn and then-defense minister Sukumpol Suwanatat, all stating it is still in use because of a lack of alternatives. However, they also said they would respect scientific evidence that prove the opposite - completely ignoring the existence of same since 2010.

And then earlier this year...

Commander-in-Chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha has requested the public to stop fueling criticisms and leave the case to be investigated by Department of Special Investigation (DSI) and the Thai court. He added that the army has already stopped using the devices for 2-3 years. However, he admitted that some military personnel still use them since there is no other alternative instrument.

"Army chief urges the public stop criticizing GT200 fraud", National News Bureau of Thailand, April 25, 2013

The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) has not made any progress since the start of their investigations last year.

With the conviction of both con-men in the UK at least some progress has been made their, whereas in Thailand this - especially on a legal and political level - still has yet to happen.

Yingluck's European tour: Strictly business as usual

Originally published at Siam Voices on July 23, 2012

Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra visited Germany and France last week, her first visit to Europe since she took office a year ago. While the trip was primarily aimed at improving economic ties and regaining confidence among investors from the two most important economies in the European Union for the Thai government, other issues, such as the still unstable political situation and the continuously deteriorating freedom of speech, were mentioned in passing at best.

Over the course of five days, Yingluck completed a packed itinerary with lots of meetings and shaking hands with government officials, dignitaries and business representatives. She was accompanied by her entourage, including Foreign Minister Surapong Towijakchaikul,  and Suranand Vejjajiva, who know works for the government as her secretary-general. She also had 73 Thai private sector representatives in tow, underlining the main emphasis of this trip.

The first destination was the German capital Berlin, where she met with Chancellor Angela Merkel who greeted her with customary military honors at the Chancellery  for a working lunch and a joint press conference - which was pretty much the only chance for the German press to see her. Not much was reported about it - despite the fact it is the first visit by a Thai Prime Minister to Germany since 1995 and the German-Thai diplomatic relations are celebrating their 150th anniversary, as emphasized by both leaders. That said, the German media generally pays little attention to Southeast Asia (unless it is about Burma and involves Aung San Suu Kyi),

And so the official website of the Chancellery was the only outlet where interested followers could see the full press conference, which is available in German only. In the 17 minutes long presser, the German leader outlined the economic ties between the two countries pointing out that Germany is the "most important economical partner in the EU" and with about "600 German companies" already in the Kingdom, not to mention a popular tourist destination. The most important and interesting issue during this press conference and the meeting in general was the call to speed up the process for an ASEAN-EU free trade agreement, something Merkel has been advocating for some time already.

Prime Minister Yingluck said the two leaders have "trust in each other" and that the two countries will expand their relations "on all issues" including democratization, rule of law and human rights - which was pretty much one of the very few times these three words have been mentioned publicly during this trip. In general, nothing much else was talked about and the interest by the German press was virtually non-existent, as there was only one question directed to Yingluck by a Thai journalist and the other German colleagues asking Chancellor Merkel about the Euro crisis and the situation in Syria - and also a female reporter gushing over the apparent women power present at the stage (we talked about Yingluck and the issue with feminism before here and here).

And with that there was subsequently very much nothing reported in the German media outlets and the rest of Yingluck's stay in Germany can only be reconstructed via the official Flickr account of the Prime Minister (a great source for press photos licensed under Creative Commons btw!). Nevertheless, some interesting notes can be made from them: from giving a speech to a business forummeeting with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, and meeting Thai citizens in Germany at the Thai Embassy and also at a Thai Buddhist temple during a short sojourn to Munich.

Yingluck also met with a group of German MPs dubbed the "Friends of Thailand" consisting of the German-ASEAN parliamentary group. But the picture also shows another familiar face: the grey-haired man left from the table with the water bottles is Michael Glos, MP of the conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), who has been to Thailand earlier this year. Glos also belongs to a group of conservative MPs that have lobbied at the Foreign Ministry to revoke the entry ban of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last year and have been campaigning for a policy change towards Thailand with "Thaksin as a strong figure" (we reported).

On Thursday, Yingluck traveled to France to do essentially the same: meeting with President François Hollande to talk about economy and ASEAN and meeting with business representatives to drum the roll for French investors. However the small difference was the slightly higher media coverage in France: the Prime Minister gave interviews to Le Figaro - where she was also asked about the role of the non-democratic militaryher usual denial over changing anything about lèse majesté and her rejection over the notion that she's the puppet of her bigger brother - and a TV interview with France 24, recorded before her departure.

The trip ended on Sunday and a pleased Prime Minister announced on her own TV show that it was a good opportunity to build trust and goodwill towards Thailand and its economy. For the two European heavyweights, ASEAN is likely to be a majore economic partner in the not-so-distant future as both sides have strong interest in a free-trade agreement. However, the question remains about Thailand's role because, contrary to what Yingluck told Merkel and Hollande, the political outlook for the Kingdom looks less than stable and still could drive investors away to regional neighbors, despite all the efforts to mask a long-simmering political crisis as a short-term problem. For the economic and political future, Thailands needs strong partners like the EU, but do these strong countries equally need Thailand that much?