Army conscript Wichian Phueksom was tortured to death in an army camp over 12 years ago. Today, justice has still not been served.
The former monk with a master's degree was enlisted under mandatory military service. Tragically, his life was cut short at 26 due to fatal hazing and torture by a group of military trainers led by an army officer at an army camp in Narathiwat province on June 5, 2011.
He was reportedly beaten up, stripped naked, dragged across the floor and placed on an ice sheet. An autopsy revealed shattered kidneys and extensive, grievous bruises all over his body.
When Narisarawan Kaewnoparat, his niece, exposed the crime and went to court for justice, she was targeted for intimidation and death threats. These included an envelope containing bullets, stalking incidents and an unlawful arrest for allegedly defaming an officer involved in the torture case.
The civil court case took three years, with the military compensating Wichian's family with 7 million baht. After 12 years, the military court has yet to deliver a ruling on the criminal case.
Following a series of postponements, the court rescheduled the verdict from Aug 25 to Oct 25, 2023, citing the need for a thorough examination of the factual and legal complexity of his case and a backlog of other cases.
Wichian's tragic death wasn't isolated. With increasing conscript deaths from hazing and torture, there's a strong call to end mandatory conscription and corporal punishment.
In response to public outcry, Army Chief Gen Narongphan Jitkaewthae unveiled military restructuring plans for 2017–2026. The plan aims to reduce the military's size, trim expenses on personnel and equipment and enhance operational effectiveness to match global events. However, tangible changes have been minimal and much delayed without substantial reform efforts.
Meanwhile, military hazing and torture persist unchecked. Thai men aged 20 are conscripted for up to two years. Declining numbers of the required privates over the years have prompted plans for voluntary conscription.
At the same time, deaths of army conscripts resulting from fatal corporal punishment occur annually. Disturbingly, the punishment techniques increasingly resemble those inflicted upon war prisoners. For example, Pvt Yutthakinan Boonniam, 22, died during detention in a military prison in Surat Thani after four days of torture. Reports suggest he was stripped naked, with his neck tethered to prison bars that could be stretched to inflict harm.
His head was covered with a plastic bag to suffocate him. The abusers also repeatedly beat his head, hung him head-down from the ceiling and left him under the scorching sun in a plastic bag. He lapsed into a coma and later died in a hospital.
Military regulations actually prohibit physical contact as punishment. But abusers know they can get away with murder, thanks to the deeply ingrained culture of impunity and stifling silence prevailing in the military.
The difficulties in securing justice further explain why the victims' families often accept compensation rather than embark on a drawn-out and costly legal battle that offers no guarantee of achieving justice. It is not uncommon for abusers to ascend the ranks instead of receiving proper punishment, as shielding military personnel is viewed as synonymous with safeguarding the military institution itself.
The Pheu Thai Party promised military reform in its general election campaign. On Aug 21, the coalition government led by the Pheu Thai Party reaffirmed the policy on voluntary conscription. Although it is a positive step, it is insufficient to ensure the conscripts' safety. The government must ensure the military enacts reform to streamline military operations and prevent abuse of power. For starters, penalise abusers instead of perpetually shielding them. Next, eliminate corruption that has turned mandatory conscription into an under-the-table enterprise.
With the new Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Act, crimes won't fall under Military Court any more. For fatal military corporal punishment, criminals could face up to 30 years' jail or life imprisonment. The army should ensure the forces know this law and conscripts their rights.
When asked about the Pheu Thai policy on military reform, prime minister designate Srettha Thavisin brushed off the matter, saying he prefers to call it "development collaboration", not reform. This is worrying. Change demands eradicating the culture of impunity and ensuring accountability. The government must ensure those in the armed forces can serve without fear of abuse, coercion or death.