As head of the Department of Special Investigations, Police General Sombat Amornvivat knows that he and his team have to be at the top of their game at all times
When he was a young police captain attending an 11-week course at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Academy in Quintico, Virginia in 1973, Pol Gen Sombat Amornvivat never imagined that one day he would lead a similar agency in Thailand, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI).
“I consider it a very special assignment because we handle many important and high profile cases. While the police deal with general crimes, the DSI targets more complicated cases, especially those dealing with financial crimes which are too complex for ordinary police work to bring about a successful prosecution. A classic ‘difficult’ case was the collapse of the Bangkok Bank of Commerce,” he explained.
Pol Gen Sombat has been director-general of the DSI since his move from the Royal Thai Police in January 2004. The DSI now has only one office in Bangkok but there are plans to expand to other regions of the country. “We have got here many highly qualified officers chosen from the ranks of police, customs and revenue departments, as well as prosecutors, accountants and lawyers from a variety of other government departments.”
Pol Gen Sombat said that the biggest problem for the DSI is training. “Some of our recruits don’t know how to investigate, so we have to train them. We have a close relationship with foreign investigation experts in the United States, the United Kingdom and several other countries. They come here to instruct our officers,” he revealed.
Pol Gen Sombat dismissed a criticism that was rife in the agency’s early days: “Some officials didn’t like the DSI because they thought it overlaps other agencies. They still had an old working culture mindset. Things are better now and we cooperate very well.”
He also admitted that in the beginning some officers thought that they were better than other law enforcement people because they were selected to the DSI, but that situation has also been resolved.
Pol Gen Sombat highlighted two controversial cases currently being investigated by the DSI. First, the disappearance of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaichit, who had defended several suspects in connection with the violence in the restive South and who went missing on March 12, 2004. The second case was the murder of environmentalist Charoen Wat-aksorn, who was gunned down on June 21, 2004 after testifying before a Senate committee about attempts by some influential people to grab public land. He was instrumental in pressuring the government to scrap plans to build the Bo Nok power plant in Prachuap Khiri Khan province.
Pol Gen Sombat is well aware that the handling of both cases has received a great deal of attention, and criticism, from local and foreign media as well as human rights organisations.
“I can assure you that everyone at the DSI is doing their utmost to solve both cases,” he said.
The DSI was assigned to investigate the Somchai case about five months ago because it was a priority case that the police were having difficulties with.
“I am really trying to solve this case and I am confident that we will succeed. But a lack of evidence makes the investigation very difficult. You see, Somchai’s body has not even been found yet.”
As for Mr Charoen, he added, “we have arrested several people, but his wife is not quite happy and still wants us to arrest more. We have no evidence on which to do so, and this has disappointed her. We work according to the evidence, and not because of pressure from any party. We do our best but we have to follow laws, regulations and to respect human rights.”
The record of Pol Gen Sombat might serve to dispel any doubts as to his sincerity and determination to apprehend criminals whoever and wherever they are. For example, in 2003 he was in charge of the police’s anti-mafia centre, with 844 suspected underworld mafia figures and their gunmen on the blacklist.
His former subordinates say that Pol Gen Sombat gained a lot of respect from ordinary people around Thailand during his years as a policeman, including from Thai Muslims in the South. And the reputation he has earned is helpful to the DSI in investigating important cases there.
Pol Gen Sombat revealed that the DSI – which participated in the investigations in the South from the beginning of the crisis – has successfully solved several important cases by tracking down and arresting the suspected masterminds behind acts of violence.
“There are a number of government law enforcement organizations now operating in the South and there is good cooperation between them and the DSI,” he added. Touching on the state of law enforcement in Thailand, he said that big progress has been made. Police officers are more knowledgeable than before and the force has been slimmed down, allowing basic salaries to be increased.
“We now focus on quality not quantity. We are in the process of downsizing. A smaller force will be better paid. The law enforcement agencies in Thailand are generally up to international standards,” he said.
“The improvement of law enforcement procedures in Thailand hinges around two critical issues. First, we have to respect human rights. Due process has to be respected. Second, we have to use more scientific evidence to help obtain convictions, including fingerprints, DNA and forensic techniques.
“My job is very demanding – more so than when I was in the police force,” he admitted. “I have to spend around 18 hours a day on the job, either in directing my staff on how to proceed with investigations or doing it myself, and also in training our officers.”
What free time Pol Gen Sombat has during weekends is spent with his family or playing golf. He also enjoys reading magazines, books and one English newspaper he is subscribed to as well.
“I am family man and always have enough time for my wife. Who understand that I have to work for long hours. I plan to travel around the world and golf when I retire within a year-and-a-half.”
It was a big change for Pol Gen Sombat Amornvivat to leave the Royal Thai Police and take an assignment to head the DSI two years it was established. His ppointment was no accident; arguably there was no one better suited to take charge and promote the new law enforcement agency modeled after the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was obvious during the interview that he had taken on a grueling task and was under a lot of pressure. Some of this was due to constant attacks in the media on Pol Gen Sombat and his organization. He was keen to present the DSI in a positive light.
The interview was published in January 2006. In early December the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) issued a report which said in part: “The Asian Human Right Commission wishes to inform that the head of the Department of Special Investigation has been removed from his job over the failure to solve the March 2004 abduction by police of human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit. Police General Sombat Amornvivat was transferred to another part of the justice ministry…”