THAILAND'S top cop General Sant Sarutanond is a familiar face on television. Steely and commanding,he often answers questions from the media during a major newsbreak involving crime or national security.
Now, questions are being asked about the burly 59-year-old police chief. He has become the subject of a juicy story involving sexual harassment at the acme of the country’s civil service.
Three weeks ago, the media was abuzz with talk that a high-ranking government officer had sexually harassed a pretty 30-year-old television news anchor with indecent proposals and incessant phone calls.
The scandal came to light after a vaguely worded complaint was filed with the Thai Journalists Association (TJA). The accusation: Female journalists had been “sexually approached” by senior government officials in charge of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's security.
The association was told that some officials had allegedly offered to take “special care” of women reporters covering Cabinet meetings in Phuket and Ubon Ratchathani last month.
In one case, there was an offer of a car and a house in a note slipped into the hotel room of the anchorwoman.
Outraged TJA chairman Veera Prateepchaikul promptly issued an advisory urging female journalists to take precautions against sexual harassment while they were on the beat. He also advised them to avoid one-on-one interviews behind closed doors.
No names were mentioned in the circular, thus both the accuser and the accused remain mysterious to the public.
Apparently miffed by the TJA's advisory and the continuing spread of rumours, Gen Sant called a media conference and defended officers in the force.
An inquiry was set up with department spokesman Major-Gen Pongsapat Pongcharoen and Crime Suppression Division chief Major-Gen Surasit Sangkhapong heading the probe.
Brushing aside the complaints as “baseless,” the piqued police chief said none of the officers on security duty, including himself, had the time to do that kind of thing.
“I am ready to share half my wealth with any reporter who feels she was sexually harassed and can prove it,” he huffed before going abroad for about 10 days.
The reaction from the fiercely independent Thai media was swift. In an open letter, they condemned the police chief’s moves to distort the issue by claiming that the story was fabricated.
If people were left guessing about the top-ranking officer in question, Gen Sant made it all clear upon his return.
“It wasn’t me”, he said, denying vehemently he had propositioned any woman by offering a house and a car and threatening to file civil suits and criminal charges against “cowardly rumour mongers” who had tarnished his name.
“Reporters at the Royal Thai Police Office are close to me and I love them all. But they did not write the stories themselves. They gave the reports to the editors who wrote the news for them.
“We can identify the woman reporter but her name cannot be revealed because she has refused to speak. But I will seek court and official power to make her tell what really happened,” he said.
On Tuesday, the police chief filed libel charges against three newspapers – Ban Muang, Phujadkarn and Phujadkuan and indicated that more such action would be filed.
But it appears that his legal moves have done him more harm than good.
Newspapers are using their creativity to continue writing stories about the scandal with more and more insinuations.
Despite the libel suit, Phujadkarn lampooned the general to the hilt in its tabloid pullout on Friday.
A cartoon centrespread poking fun at the inquiry and a “wanted for relationship” advertisement featuring Gen Sant’s face (but with the eyes blacked out) were among the highlights of the issue.
The reporter has remained reticent, perhaps all too well aware that every aspect of her past would be subject to scrutiny if she decided to go public.
Besides other journalists, the Network of Women and the Constitution and the Rights and Equality Promotion Association has been providing her with moral support.
Ratchadaporn Kaewsanit, a representative of the NGO, said it was not proper for Gen Sant to push for a court order to get her to speak, especially when she did not name anyone and had been keeping quiet.
“She must be scared and does not want such a thing to happen to others. She probably just wants to protect her reputation and her friends. She has the right to confidentiality,” Ratchadaporn said.
The network has urged journalists to boycott reporting the Royal Thai Police Office activities for three months. The defiant general, however, has told journalists to keep it on for another one and a half years – when he is due for retirement.
Several senators have also questioned the general’s decision to seek legal redress when the outcome of the inquiry was still unclear.
Bangkok Senator Wallop Tangkhananurak, who chairs the senate committee for children, women and the elderly, said Gen Sant should also wait for the results from a senate panel appointed to investigate the matter.
In the latest development, 38 parliamentary media corps reporters issued an open letter expressing their confidence in the professional ethics of their counterparts at Government House who had spoken out against sexual harassment.
A joint statement from the Thai Journalists Association and Thai Broadcast Journalists Association said while the police chief had the right to take legal action against people he thought had damaged his reputation, he should strictly observe the law without using his position to intimidate others.
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