Vampires rule roost in this heartless land

Vampires rule roost in this heartless land

The mother looked for her son's heart in a foam box. "Where is it?" she asked. She's already had his body, and only when she requested was she was allowed to take back his soul.

It's beyond words, beyond tragedy. They took his heart because they're heartless. They took his guts because they're gutless. They took his brain because they are brainless. We thought this country was many things -- a country of smiles, of crooks, of crooked smiles, of corrupt politicians and coup-addicted soldiers, of might and military men. Now we're also a country of vampires.

On Thursday, Sukanya Tanyakan collected the organs of her dead son Pakapong Tanyakan -- disemboweled in secret without the consent of his family and kept in foam boxes at Phramongkutklao Hospital. The cadet died on Oct 17 in dubious circumstances at the Armed Forces Academics Preparatory School, officially from cardiac arrest though suspicion is rife that it was partly a consequence of the school's corporal punishment.

The cause of Pakapong's death is one controversy, and earlier this week it has been compounded by another, a more morbid one, when the family found out through another autopsy that his heart, intestines and brain had been removed without them knowing. Only when they told the press did the army stir, hold a vague, nearly incomprehensible press conference, and inform the parents to come and retrieve the missing parts of their son, as if telling them to collect forgotten belongings from a lost-and-found booth.

Why did they do that? We can understand if some people have little respect for the living. But why such disrespect to the dead?

First thing first, what the public want to see now is simple: Somebody must be suspended or sacked, then investigated by an impartial party. Somebody must be -- this is so simple! -- responsible. In a civilised society, we couldn't possibly ask for anything less than this. Unless we're not that kind of society.

A less simple thing to ask is for the cadet school, where Pakapong studied and where he died, to review its practice and "tradition" of corporal punishment -- we're not so naïve as to believe that it will be eliminated, but the deadly use of force as part of routine training or "correcting" behaviour must be deemed excessive and unacceptable.

And yet an even less simple thing to ask, especially when the military, the government and nearly everyone in power are almost the same people, is for the army to come to terms with the fact that too many conscripts and cadets have died in suspicious circumstances -- three this year and more in the past few years -- and something must be done. Unless, of course, such violence -- institutional violence condoned and elevated to a point of pride -- is the norm, the culture, the standard operating procedure, and death in training is not something to waste time or tears thinking about.

The worst part, however, is that such violence is really the culture. That's the world some people live in. Which is fine, really, except when they're forcing us to live in it too.

The reactions from Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha confirmed that: They feel sorry for what happened, which I believe they do, and yet they put the army before humanity, military before men, pride before empathy, when they said "What's wrong with [excessive punishment]? I went through it all," and "I went through it and I didn't die." The PM also claimed that corporal punishment is common in foreign armies (so what about his famous "one shirt doesn't fit every person" quote, referring to our specially tailored brand of democracy?).

Sure, pushing the limit of physical tolerance is common in cadet training everywhere. But in those countries if a person dies as a result of that -- not to mention if the dead man's heart is taken out of his body in stealth -- someone must show responsibility. It's a lack of concern in this regard, I believe, that has gone on for too long and that has enraged the public in this particular case.

Let's be clear. There are two issues in the news: the dubious cause of Pakapong's death -- is it connected to excessive punishment? -- and the furtive removal of his internal organs, which may be tied to the first point, his real cause of death. The army has deployed forensic experts to argue that legally, they can take away your guts without informing your family first.

Well, that's the problem with the world in which they live, a world that has no heart, probably no soul. Pakapong may have died of heart failure. But it's the failure of other hearts -- cold, dry, ancient -- that's the real tragedy of us all.

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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