Southeast Asian Law Enforcement Agencies Need More U.S. Help

By Fuadi Pitsuwan, Adjunct Research Scholar, Asian Studies Department at Georgetown University

The hostage crisis in Manila ended with the death of eight tourists and a hostage taker, identified as a disgruntled former police officer who was demanding reinstatement after being dishonorably dismissed due to alleged extortion cases. Sadly and interestingly, the tragic conclusion was blamed, by the general public and the media, on the supposedly poor judgment by the Philippine National Police (PNP) in dealing with the crisis.

Nevertheless, the tragic event may prove to be a wake-up call for the Southeast Asian nation and its neighbors in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to seek closer cooperation with international partners to relook at the organization and the training of their police forces. For the US, this presents an opportunity to strengthen the cooperation with ASEAN member states by augmenting technical consultation and financial assistance aimed at reforming Southeast Asian law enforcement agencies.

Newly elected President Noynoy Aquino, Interior Secretary Jesse Robrebo, and PNP Chief Director Jesus Verzosa all acknowledged shortcomings and deficiencies in the handling of the situation by the PNP.  They admitted that the PNP lacks the proper equipment and the appropriate skills and training to handle such a crisis. The fact that the perpetrator was a former police officer also embodied an entrenched internal struggle within the PNP.  The leadership of the Philippines promised a thorough investigation aimed at finding what went wrong and how the situation could have been better dealt with.

Examples of the inefficacy of the police, or security personnel, in the region are not limited to the Philippines. Similar instances can be seen throughout Southeast Asia.

A case in point is the Royal Thai Police’s (RTP) handling of the protests in Bangkok during the past few years. The RTP proved powerless during both the Yellow-Shirt and the Red-Shirt protests. The organization is marred by corruption and appeared reluctant to employ effective measures to prevent the Yellow Shirts from closing down Bangkok’s international airport and the Red Shirts from occupying the city’s commercial district. The role of the police in maintaining security during these recent events was completely overshadowed by that of the military. The RTP is so encumbered with political influence that it has refrained from doing anything that could upset key players on either side of the Thai political spectrum for fear of retribution. In fact, the Thai police was so incompetent that the U.S. Ambassador to Thailand jokingly stated that the Thai authority should invite the Korean police, known for its fortune in dealing with frequent protests, to assist in crowd control in Bangkok.

In Indonesia, the National Police (INP) is perceived to be one of the most corrupt institutions in the country. It is currently suffering from a scandal involving INP Chief Gen. Bambang Hendarso Danuri who has been accused of falsifying evidence in an attempt to discredit the respected Corruption Eradication Commission by claiming that the leadership of the Commission accepted Rp 5.1 billion, or $570,000, in bribes. On the operational side, the INP’s handling of suspected terrorists and their networks, which often ended with the target being killed rather than arrested, could be further improved. The International Crisis Group in April of this year recommended that the Indonesian government to “identify training and equipment needs to increase the likelihood that high-value targets in the future can be captured alive.”

The State Department’s Human Right Report in 2009 cited several NGO surveys showing that the Malaysians perceive their police organization, the Royal Malaysian Police (RMP), to be among the most corrupt government institutions.  According to the same report, 50 people were killed during apprehension by the police last year.  The RMP has also relied heavily on the People’s Volunteer Corps (RELA) to assist the police in combating crime as well as cracking down on illegal immigrants; however, the 700,000-strong RELA members reportedly received inadequate training and are ill-equipped to perform their duties. Further, they have been allegedly involved in extortion, assaults and theft.

To the credit of the U.S. government, many initiatives aimed at increasing the effectiveness and reforming the police organizations have already taken place. Most recently, the U.S. government, with funding from the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs at the State Department, procured and donated four police patrol boats to the Philippine National Police Maritime Group Special Boat Unit. The Department of Justice’s International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP) has been quite active in Southeast Asia, particularly, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. In Indonesia, ICITAP, started in 2000, helped Indonesia establish a cybercrime unit and recently trained the police in dealing with environmental crimes such as illegal trading wildlife and exotic animals and destruction of their habitats. ICITAP in Thailand began in mid-2008 and has focused on improving the quality of forensic investigation by the Thai police. Bangkok is also the Asian hub for one of the several International Law Enforcement Academies (ILEA) established by the State Department in the mid-90s to help train police force worldwide. The Philippines’ ICITAP has trained more than 9,000 police officers and assisted in crime scene investigation in terrorism-prone areas since the program started in 2006.

Repeated instances of incompetence and frequent accusations of corruption and other scandals, however, illustrates that the police forces in Southeast Asia still need major overhaul and that the U.S. must continue to assist this effort with increased resources. According to the U.S. President’s budget for fiscal year 2011, several ASEAN member states, including Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, are set to receive a total of about $18.5 million from the State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INCLE) account. Other ASEAN members, namely, Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore are getting none. The fund is considerably low given the Administration’s rhetoric of a refocused commitment to Southeast Asia.   In fact, Central and South American countries are allocated almost $700 million, while South and Central Asian and the Middle Eastern countries together will get more than $1.1 billion in funding to assist with counter narcotics effort and bolstering of law enforcement agencies.

Such a disparity in U.S. support to international law enforcement agencies, of course, reflects the differing assessment of risks and needs for each region and country. While a low funding level may suggest the U.S. is less intertwined with the stability of a country, it may also connote a level of confidence on a country’s ability to manage its domestic security apparatus. However, recent examples in Southeast Asia should prompt the U.S. government to reassess whether the level of support it has been given to ASEAN countries is sufficient.

Ineffective police forces in Southeast Asia could have negative impacts on U.S. national security. It should be noted that Southeast Asia was a haven for illicit trade and regional extremist organizations have direct ties to their globally operated brethren.  The recent indictment of Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arm trafficker who is dubbed “the Merchant of Death,” in Bangkok serves as an indication that it is in the U.S. national security interest to see strong and effective police organizations in Southeast Asia. Moreover, as the United States continues to fight against terrorism and heeds various warnings that Southeast Asia could be the “next front” on war on terrorism (with already-active and internationally-linked extremist organizations such as the Jemaah Islamiya (JI) and the Abu Sayyaf residing in the region), the U.S. must reinforce its technical consultation and financial assistance to law enforcement agencies in the region. While it must be acknowledged that other factors such as domestic power-play may prevent a thorough reform of the police organizations, bolstered U.S. assistance would nevertheless go a long way to improving the quality of those law enforcers.


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