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BANGKOK – Investigating a crime with little forensic evidence, no clear motive and no claim of responsibility — like the Bangkok bombing that killed 20 people — would challenge anyone. Yet the Royal Thai Police department is handicapped even in the best of circumstances by a legacy of corruption, brutality and political influence.
The absence of a suspect identified by name — or even nationality — has fueled criticism of the investigation into the Aug. 17 attack at a popular central Bangkok shrine. Police are accused of failing to secure forensic evidence and issuing wrong or misleading information to the public. Some question their competence, or speculate that the military government that seized power last year may not want the real culprits to be found.
Faith in the police has never run deep in Thailand, where street cops earn scandalously low pay and officials in the upper ranks continually joust for power and influence.
A 2013 survey by the anti-corruption group Transparency International found that 71% of respondents judged the police as corrupt or extremely corrupt, edging out political parties with 68% as the most corrupt institution.
An Executive Opinion Survey published in the latest Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum likewise ranked Thailand 113th out of 144 economies in a ranking of the perceived reliability of police services — the extent to which they can be relied upon to enforce law and order.
"In Thailand's most sensational crimes, the prime suspects are often the police," was the pithy judgment of The Economist magazine in 2008.
Answering questions about the bombing probe, police spokesman Prawut Thawornsiri said Monday: "To investigate a bombing anywhere in the world is difficult. In some cases in the world they spent five years. In some cases they never found a suspect, even though 20 years passed. But we will keep trying."
Making an arrest may create another avenue of criticism. Thai police have frequently been accused of using coercion and torture to extract confessions from suspects, who are commonly made to participate in re-enactments of their alleged crimes.
This year, police were accused of torturing two migrant workers from Myanmar into making false confessions to the murders of two British tourists on a resort island in the Gulf of Thailand. As in the bombing case, there is suspicion that the authorities simply are looking for a quick fix to ease tourists' worries.
A case known as the "Blue Diamond Affair," involving the 1989 theft of jewelry by a Thai overseas worker from the palace of a Saudi prince, cast a harsh spotlight on Thai police and has roiled diplomatic relations with Riyadh ever since. Much of the loot went unrecovered, and a police general was ultimately convicted of kidnapping and killing relatives of a witness in the case.
The police force's reputation was further damaged by in 2003 when the government declared a "War on Drugs" to deal with a massive influx of methamphetamine. Homicide rates more than doubled at the peak of the campaign, and while authorities blamed infighting among traffickers, some high-profile incidents where innocent people were killed in view of witnesses made clear that police were operating under shoot-to-kill rules.
Yet much of Thais' dim view of police stems from more mundane experiences. Police often extract bribes from motorists and others, a form of corruption that is exacerbated by low pay.
The military-led government has promised to clean up the police force, but in the bombing case it may be steering investigators away from one potentially damaging theory, said Jomdet Trimek, a professor of criminology at Bangkok's Rangsit University and a former police officer.
Early leaks from the police suggested that militant Muslims from China's Uighur minority were suspects, seeking to avenge Thailand's forced repatriation in July of more than a hundred Uighurs who had fled their homeland. Thai authorities later discounted possible international terrorism links, though the arrest warrant for the still-unidentified main suspect describes him as a "foreign man" and the police chief said Monday that no theory has been ruled out.
The shrine where the bomb exploded is a magnet for Chinese tourists, and at least six of the dead were from mainland China and Hong Kong. If the attack was payback for Thailand's handling of Uighur migrants, it would cast blame on the junta for providing a pretext for the bombing and would scare away Chinese visitors, now a major component of the country's lucrative tourism industry.
"If the real motive of this act of terrorism is a matter relating to Uighurs," Jomdet said in an email interview, "I believe the government will not disclose it."
Jomdet said the haste with which the crime scene was cleaned up suggests a rush to restore public confidence, possibly at the expense of collecting more evidence. The area was hosed down less than 24 hours after the blast, and the bomb crater was patched over in less than 48.
While police have yet to find any suspects linked to the attack, they have arrested two people for allegedly spreading false information online.
Nattapong Thongpakde, a professor at Thailand's National Institute of Development Administration who wrote a newspaper column last week comparing the blast to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, said authorities seem to be seeking to curtail public discussion of the bombing for the same purpose of promoting an impression of normalcy.
"The focus in Boston's case was public security," he told The Associated Press in an email interview. "Therefore all resources were allocated to find the suspect and the motive, to make sure that it would not happen again, or at least to know what was going on. The authorities followed the evidence without giving unfounded speculation."
Some of these criticisms are unfair, said a veteran Thai police officer who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media. A commissioned officer for 12 years, he said the Office of Police Forensic Science and the Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams were quickly on the scene and collected much evidence, which has been followed up by the country's best detectives.
He also noted that Thai police have the advantage of having in Bangkok one of the four International Law Enforcement Academies established worldwide in cooperation with the U.S. State Department to train law enforcement personnel, and whose curriculum this year started off with a "Post Blast Investigations Course."
The officer added that while the bombing reveal police problems in gathering intelligence, law-enforcement agencies in the U.S. and around the world have the same challenges.