Army 'image' trumps the people's truth

Army 'image' trumps the people's truth

Her uncle was beaten to death in an army camp and now she has been sued for revealing what happened. On Monday, Naritsarawan Kaewnopparat was arrested and charged for defamation and disseminating "false information" -- meaning the details of her uncle's harrowing death at the combat boots of his drill sergeants, who caned and kicked him from evening until past midnight back in 2011 at a Narathiwat barracks. Ms Naritsarawan, who has been fighting for a semblance of justice for six years, denied the charges and was released on bail.

"False information" -- that sounds ridiculously familiar. It seems everything that hasn't come out of state apparatus is false, distorted, doctored, unpatriotic, or hexed by the bad blood of disgraced politicians. How convenient when every fact is defamatory except yours?

The charges, however, weren't brought against Ms Naritsarawan by the army but by a lieutenant who was on watch the night her uncle, Pvt Wichian Puaksom, was beaten to death. The army paid 6.5 million baht in compensation to the family last year, while three murder suspects who killed Pvt Wichian are being prosecuted by a military court (six years later, how fast). And while we're on the subject, let's not forget the recent case of army conscript Songtham Mudmad, who was also beaten to death from a punishment by his drill sergeants. Six men involved in the killing are said to have been punished (maybe Norwegian style, reserved only for military wrongdoers) while some of the suspects have allegedly been promoted.

It's worth noting that both cases happened in southern barracks. Pvt Wichian was killed in the army camp in Narathiwat, while Pvt Songtham's plight took place at Payak Camp in Yala. But of course there are more than two: emotions ran high earlier this year when a series of video clips surfaced in which new army recruits, in several incidents, are seen being stripped, abused, kicked, stomped, punched, humiliated and flattened to a pulp by other soldiers who shout insults at them. One of the clips is a record of the beating of Pvt Wichian.

Each unjust country has its own Abu Ghraib, and we're not to be outdone -- only that for us, it's not even foreign "enemies" who risk being abused, shamed and killed, but our own clueless conscripts, young men indoctrinated into a system that is supposed to protect them and others. The top-rank generals insist that this is a "rare" incident; I'd say it's medium-rare to medium on the way to well-done.

On Tuesday, torture was also in the news with another defamatory lawsuit. Three human rights defenders Somchai Homla-or, Anchana Heemmina and Pornpen Khongkachonkiet reported to the police in Pattani to hear the libel charges slapped against them by the Internal Security Operations Command Region 4. In February, the three issued a report on 54 cases of alleged torture by military personnel in the South against detainees; in June the army filed complaints with the police who proceeded to summon the three activists -- how fast, compared to its action against alleged abusers within their own ranks.

The army said that it must protect its image against those who spread libelous information. Understandable and justifiable. But in a region plagued by bombs and strewn with innocent corpses, in an area where insurgent violence only begets state violence, and in a country where critical views are branded unpatriotic and potentially defamatory, where journalists and activists get sued for negative reporting on the military, it makes one wonder if "image" is more worthy of protection than civilian rights, and if fair treatment of opposing voices is quickly sacrificed for face-saving, threatening lawsuits.

Blow the whistle (sorry for the pun) and a court order will be plastered on the door of your house; Thaksin Shinawatra was a skilled practitioner of that, and now the military just follows the same playbook of the man they hate.

In June, the cabinet approved the Torture and Enforced Disappearance Prevention and Suppression Bill. On paper, this is the act of a saint since torture will be criminalised. In the barracks in the South and elsewhere, the saints sometimes arrive in a camouflage outfit and combat boots, armed with the entrenched culture of militarism.

It's also, as the South seems to have witnessed it more than the rest, a culture of impunity, from Tak Bai to Tung Yang Daeng, from Saba Yoi to the deaths of Pvt Wichian and Pvt Songtham. And when things get too hairy, you can always flip out the trump card: the people are giving false, defamatory information while the state lays claim to the sovereign of truth. How convenient.

Kong Rithdee is Life Editor, Bangkok Post.

Kong Rithdee

Bangkok Post columnist

Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.

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