Thai military in the dock after years of torture allegations

(Photo by Madaree TOHLALA / AFP)

Reports of soldiers being brutally beaten inside military barracks emerge every year in Thailand.

An organization monitoring human rights in Thailand said in 2020 that violence is part of the “culture of torture” within the Thai Army – an accusation backed by an Amnesty International investigation.

Among the many victims was 26-year-old Private Wichian Puaksom, who died after being beaten at a military base in Narathiwat in June 2011.

Prosecutors are due to submit the case against 10 suspects at the 46th Military Circle Court on Thursday (September 30), according to Wichian’s niece Narissarawan Keawnopparat.

The trial comes after years of campaigning by Narissarawan.

Narissarawan has fought fearlessly for justice, taking on the powerful Army despite constant intimidation and death threats. She was even arrested on a defamation charge, but this failed to halt her quest for the truth about what happened to her uncle.

Who was Private Wichian?

Born and brought up in the southern province of Songkhla, Wichian was ordained after completing secondary school. He furthered his studies at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyala University – a higher education institute for monks – and graduated with first-class honors. He then completed his master’s in community development at Thammasat University.

After spending eight years in the monkhood, Wichian, then 26, decided to relinquish his saffron robes and serve his motherland by joining the Army. Had he stayed on as a monk, he could have avoided conscription. But believing that every Thai man should serve his country in the Army, he signed up voluntarily and chose to be stationed in the insurgency-racked southern province of Narathiwat.

Wichian Puaksom in monkhood.

What happened to him?

His stint as a soldier in the South started on May 1, 2011, but details about his life over the next month are sketchy. Records indicate that Wichian fled the Narathiwat-based training camp twice – once on May 9 and again on May 29. His military trainers were reportedly enraged by his escape and punished him brutally after hunting him down.

On June 5, Wichian’s mother received a call from a doctor at Naradhiwas Rajanagarindra Hospital to say her son was in critical condition. She rushed to the hospital to find her son covered in bruises and burn marks. He died from his injuries later that night.

Autopsy showed he had suffered broken ribs after being hit with blunt objects. It registered the cause of death as kidney failure caused by serious wounds.

Long saga

Narissarawan, a child social welfare worker, has waged a long fight for justice in the case. She was arrested in 2016 after a military officer filed a complaint about a Facebook post in which she accused the Army of protecting “certain people”. The arrest failed to dent her determination.

With support from organizations like the Cross Cultural Foundation, Narissarawan has made slow but solid progress in the quest for justice. After probes by the police, fact-finding committees of the 15th Infantry Division and the Fourth Army Area, the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the Office of Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission and the Judge Advocate General’s Department, the case is finally heading to a military court.

The defendants face charges of abusing their authority, disobeying military supervisors, and manslaughter. All the suspects are out on bail. The most high-ranking defendant is a lieutenant.

Wichian’s niece Narissarawan Keawnopparat.

Civil proceedings & compensation

Though Wichian’s relatives have waited more than a decade to see his alleged killers go on trial, they have already scored a victory of sorts. On February 21, 2014, a civil court ordered the Army to pay Bt7 million in compensation to the family – a payment that has been made.

However, the money can never compensate for the priceless life of their family member.

“Nobody should ever face such brutality [during Army training],” they say.

Not the last death in barracks

Wichian’s death-by-beating sparked a public outcry, but since then several more privates have sustained fatal wounds at military camps in Thailand.

In February 2016, 25-year-old Corporal Krittikon Suthiraphan died from a brutal beating in a military prison in Surin. Three privates and a member of the Royal Thai Volunteer Force were charged in the case.

On April 1, 2017, Private Yutthakinun Boonniam, 22, succumbed to injuries, including kidney damage, sustained during severe beatings at the 45th Military Circle Camp in Surat Thani.

In June 2019, 15-year-old cadet Thapakorn “Nong Chaidaen” Sapsin died after being beaten with a baseball bat at least 20 times at his cadet school.

On September 16 this year, Thailand took a step towards criminalizing torture, when Parliament approved the first reading of the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Bill.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk


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