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US International Law Enforcement Cooperation:

A Case Study in Thailand

Attorney J. W. Leeds*


The United States government places a high priority on international law enforcement, and plays a leading role in the International Police Organization (Interpol). Each year the United States enacts new laws, and amends old laws in an effort to expand its international law enforcement powers, particularly in the areas of drug trafficking, high tech smuggling, and terrorist activity. 1This expanding US interest in international law enforcement has resulted in a great number of US agencies, resources, and projects being carried out in foreign countries. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has been at the forefront of this activity, with its agents and representatives performing a plethora of activities in foreign nations.2

The DEA maintains the largest overseas law enforcement presence of any US civilian agency. Their agents represent the United States interest in international drug control both within the United States embassies and in diplomatic interactions with host state officials. They maintain communication with local law enforcement officials, provide training for local police, undertake joint drug enforcement operations with local police, conduct unilateral actions such as surveillance and the recruitment of informants, provide intelligence to local officials, and lobby for changes in their host countries laws.3

Thailand has been an area of particular interest to the United States government, and the DEA, primarily because of the belief that it serves as the primary conduit for heroin from the Golden Triangle transported to The United States.4 Working in conjunction with Thai officials, the DEA has been successful at infiltrating heroin trafficking organizations within Thailand at the highest levels, ensnaring prominent Thai government and military officials, and extraditing them to stand trial in the United States.

Thailand, with its unique legal system and cultural heritage, presents special problems and issues when confronted by the interdiction of the United States government agencies such as the DEA. These issues include the principles of Sovereignty, Conflict of Laws, and the practical implementation of binational law enforcement cooperation and extradition agreements. This article analyzes the legal processes used by the United States, and the problems it encounters, in both expanding and enforcing its law enforcement jurisdiction internationally, and particularly within Thailand. It also examines the effects of such extraterritorial imposition of law enforcement power by US agencies upon foreign legal systems, and in particular, the Thai legal system.

Thailand’s Legal Heritage

The origins of Thai law have been traced to three general sources: Thai Customary Law, Buddhist Law, and Chinese/Maritime Law.5 During the Lanna Kingdom period of Thailand’s history, which began in the year 1296 AD, the influence of Buddhism on the secular 6law was particularly strong. Royal Decrees and judgments frequently made direct comparisons between state law and religious texts. Similarly, the Buddhist influence also manifested itself through the use of monks as the official scribes and chief scholars for the Kingdom. Aspects of the Vinaya, a religious text which originally was a code of conduct for the guidance of the Sangha (monk) community, were also the source of much secular law.

The process of reformation and westernization of Thailand’s legal system occurred primarily during the period between 1880 and 1930. 7 King Rama V, also known as King Chulalongkorn, initiated the process of reformation by enlisting the aid of foreign legal experts from such countries as England, Belgium and Japan, to work in conjunction with the Thai Ministry of Justice. The reformation committee, thus formed, decided to rely primarily on the Code System of Law (also known as the Civil Law System), because of its simplicity, clarity, and ease of organization. The committee decided to retain certain aspects of the Common Law System as well. 8 Current Thai law is thus a combination of the Civil Law System, Common Law 9, and Thai Traditional Law. This eclectic legal heritage has affected the way the modern Thai legal system approaches extraterritorial application of foreign laws within their state, and against their nationals.

Modern Thailand is a democratic constitutional monarchy that has recently adopted a new Constitution 10that provides for a wide range of civil rights, including the right to privacy and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Since Thailand relies primarily on the Civil Law System, the decisions of Thailand’s Courts do not have precedential weight, except for the decisions of their Supreme Court, which are considered secondary authority.

Part  2


* Attorney at Law, State of Hawaii, U.S.A., Federal District for the State of Hawaii B.A. University of Texas 1983, J.D. University of Houston 1986.  
1) Ethan Nadelmann, The Role of the United States in the International Enforcement of Criminal Law, 31 Harvard Law Journal 37, 39 (1990)
2) Id. at 39.  
3) Id. at 48.
4) US Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, Narcotics Control Strategy-Thailand, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (last modified November 13, 1995)  
5) Andrew Huxley Foreword to THAI LAW: BUDDHIST LAW, ESSAYS ON THE LEGAL HISTORY THAILAND LAOS AND BURMA, (Andrew Huxley, ed., 1996) at page 16
6) Aroonrut Wichienkeeo, Lanna Customary Law in THAI LAW: BUDDHIST LAW, ESSAYS ON THE LEGAL HISTORY THAILAND LAOS AND BURMA, (Andrew Huxley, ed., White Orchid Press 1996) at 31-36.  
7) Andrew Huxley, supra note 1 at 6. 
8) THANIN KAIWICHAIN, LAW REFORMATION IN THE PERIOD OF KING RAMA V 6-21 (Printing Office of the Prime Minister 2511).  
9) The “Common law” system derives its heritage primarily from England, and relies on judicial decisions to comprise the body of its law, rather than strictly legislative enactments. see BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY, 6TH ED., 276 
10) Ratatamanoon Haang Rachanajak Thai (Constitution of Thailand).