Military mind games play out under strict insecurity

Military mind games play out under strict insecurity

Amid claims the government is engaged in psychological warfare, those who have had their attitudes 'adjusted' say the tactics only show weakness.

The daily announcements on television started on May 22 last year, the day of the coup. The names of individuals asked to report to the junta were read out and a sheet of paper outlining the date, location and time of their appointment was shown.

It was early June before journalist Tewarit Maneechai’s name was called, along with 27 others. It was 9pm, and he was at a gym near his office at the online newspaper Prachatai. A friend called to notify him of the order.

“I was confused, and was trying to figure out what they would do to me because I never broke the law,” he said of the moment he received the call.

Those who were “invited” to report to the military were known to undergo “attitude adjustment” sessions. The message was clear: do not criticise the junta.

By July, the public announcements had stopped. Instead, those who were on the junta’s radar were contacted individually, with some detained in undisclosed locations.

More than a year later, the junta has failed to silence its critics, and the latest round of “attitude adjustments” has increased in intensity. At the same time, the military government faces the challenge of winning approval from the international community as prime minister and coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha is scheduled to speak at the United Nations General Assembly this week.


Puangthong Pawakapan, an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, was asked to report to the National Council for Peace and Order last July, after the junta announced that it would stop summoning people.

She was interrogated by nine male officers from the National Intelligence Agency and police about her role as one of the members of a fact-finding committee investigating the 2010 military crackdown on red shirt protesters. The committee’s 1,200-page report found that the army under the Abhisit Vejjajiva government had violated the rules of engagement in dispersing the red shirt protesters.

Although the report was issued in 2012, the military has remained silent on the issue.

“They said the meeting was to exchange ideas, but they didn’t listen to us at all. When I answered their questions concerning the fact-finding report, they said I was biased,” Mrs Puangthong said. “Although their voice sounded polite, it was aggressive. I felt threatened.”

The majority of those who spoke to Spectrum about their experiences during the “attitude adjustment” sessions said they were asked to express their views on various issues, such as the monarchy, the recent coup and former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

“They want to cause a climate of fear. It’s a psychological war which not only affects the person but also their families,” said Mrs Puangthong, adding that the methods used will only increase in intensity to make the experience more frightening for those who refuse to remain silent.

According to the Internet Dialogue on Law Reform (iLaw), as of last month, the NCPO has either summoned or visited the homes of at least 782 individuals since last year’s coup. It justifies the practice with various euphemisms and vague explanations, such as that those individuals have made statements that are “not in line with the preservation of peace and order”.

Representatives from various activist groups would be called in by the junta as a way of sending a message to other group members and encouraging them to stop opposing military rule.

Mrs Puangthong, for instance, was the only representative called in from the Assembly for the Defence of Democracy, a group of independent scholars set up in 2013 to oppose the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee.

Mrs Puangthong was among the few individuals summoned who were not asked to sign an agreement letter after their release. Most were made to sign documents agreeing not to be involved in political activities, not to leave the country unless given permission by the NCPO and not to violate NCPO orders.


Kengkij Kitirianglarp, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology, was interrogated at the Army Club in Bangkok surrounded by 10 officials from the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, military and police. Two soldiers stood behind him, holding rifles.

“We know everything about you,” Mr Kengkij recalled one of the men saying.

Mr Kengkij had taken part in a protest against the 2006 military coup which deposed the Thaksin government. “The military obtains information from the Special Branch police, because they are the ones who monitor the protests,” Mr Kengkij said.

But the NCPO has also made its own attempts to seek information through the internet, and several detainees were asked to open their email and Facebook accounts during their time in detention. Some were forced to supply their passwords to authorities.

“When they asked me about my job at Kasetsart University, I realised that they obtained this information from the internet and thought I still taught there,” Mr Kengkij said. “That means that in reality, military intelligence is not that accurate.”


Clash of ideologies: Right, red shirt protesters clash with security forces in April 2010. The army has revisited the incident during its interrogations.

The reason Mr Kengkij was called in to the Army Club was to help piece together a flowchart containing an alleged network aiming to overthrow the monarchy. The chart was released publicly in April 2010 by then army spokesman Col Sansern Kaewkamnerd. It contains the names of 39 academics, politicians, businessmen and magazines, with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra at the centre.

Mr Kengkij was asked about the role of certain individuals in the alleged network and what he thought of the chart. He was shown pictures and was asked to identify people he knew and what they did.

“I tried to explain that the chart does not reflect reality because not everyone is part of a network. Not everyone is related to or receives money from Thaksin,” he said.

“They said the army has previous experience in dealing with communists and that this movement is no different in terms of its dependence on outside funding. I told them that this was a model from 30-40 years ago and they didn’t believe me.”

Mr Kengkij, who is also a member of the now defunct left-leaning activist group Iskra Group (Prakai Fai), was accused of writing The Wolf Bride, a university play that allegedly contained messages deemed critical of the monarchy and which led to the jailing of two young actors. He denied the accusations.

“They called me a liar,” he said.

Tewarit, the Prachatai journalist, who is also a member of Iskra, was asked to identify individuals and their alleged connections with anti-monarchy groups.

“Before the interrogation started, I was told that my friends [from Iskra] had cooperated, and that they expected me to do the same,” he said. “But when I didn’t give the right answer, they would say I was bad for not cooperating.”

Others, like Arisman Pongruangrong, a leading member of the red shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, were accused of being involved in armed groups.

Mr Arisman was interrogated by 15 military officers for seven days at what he believes to be an old garage equipped with an air conditioner, TV and a single bed. The soldiers questioned him about his ties with Thaksin, and asked him to identify people from pictures and their whereabouts.

“We argued and used violent words. They said I was doing everything for the Pheu Thai Party and Thaksin,” he said. “But they didn’t listen to me. It’s like they closed the door on me and put three locks on it.”


Earlier this month, former Pheu Thai party MPs Pichai Naripthaphan and Karun Hosakul, as well as journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk were taken into the junta’s custody. All three had previously been summoned for attitude adjustment last year. This time, they were held in solitary confinement.

“They must have thought I ought to have learned something the first time around,” said Pravit, who was kept for three days in a small room with three closed windows covered with iron bars. “I learned [this time] that they are very insecure, paranoid even.”

Mr Pichai was asked to report to the NCPO for his seventh attitude adjustment session because of his criticism of the regime’s economic performance.

Since his release on Sept 15, he has declined to give media interviews on the economy or political impacts on it.

According to a source familiar with the issue, the former energy minister was blindfolded and his head covered while he was driven for 90-120 minutes to a military detention camp.

The house he stayed in was old and dusty, consisting of a living room, bedroom and toilet. The door was locked from the outside and sheets of paper were used to block the view from outside the windows.

Although Mr Pichai was provided with a TV and some newspapers, he spent most of the week praying and meditating.

Rather than being interrogated, Mr Pichai was told his previous interviews and comments on social media were seen as threatening and he was asked to stop criticising the government.

Upon his release, military officers threatened to file five charges against him if he violates NCPO orders, with each charge carrying a maximum penalty of three years in prison.

According to Amnesty International, the authorities’ use of power to detain people without charge or trial violates the right to liberty and constitutes arbitrary detention.

This is prohibited under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a state party.

“[Amnesty] has concerns that aspects of their conditions of detention and treatment by officials — including being held incommunicado with no idea of when and how they would be freed, psychological pressures placed on people to ‘cooperate’, and release only upon signing forced and restrictive conditions — may, at least in some cases, constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” a spokesperson said in an email interview.

Prajak Kongkirati, a lecturer at Thammasat University’s political science faculty, called the latest round of attitude adjustments a “pre-emptive move to silence critics”, and questioned the

“There might be some internal conflict at the moment within the regime, or they might be afraid of a sudden change,” he said.

“Using tactics such as attitude adjustment means you are insecure.”


NCPO spokesman Winthai Suvaree people were chosen to undergo “attitude adjustment” based on whether their actions implicate other people or organisations in a way that causes social disunity or disagreement.

“What we are doing is preventing the violation of rights of other individuals, which would lead to hatred and ultimately loss,” Col Winthai told Spectrum.

“Some [of those who have been detained] distorted information in an attempt to blame others, and security officials need to seek measures to prevent this from reoccurring.”

He denied that the sessions violated human rights, and said such accusations are likely to come from those who wish to damage the NCPO’s credibility.     

Individuals are presented with a formal invitation, he said, and are not regarded as wrongdoers.

Several people who have declined the NCPO’s invitation, however, have been slapped with criminal charges for defying martial law.

“On the other hand, it is like having an opportunity to retreat for a period of time to reconsider and have enough concentration to accept various forms of information,” said Col Winthai, adding that officials are not able to disclose the location of the talks for security reasons. 

“Please see it as exchanging views in a straightforward manner in order to have the same understanding for the sake of the country,” he said.

“It is not a violation of rights.”


Thailand has had 13 successful military coups since the 1932 Siamese Revolution, but military-style interrogation was not widely conducted during the most recent of those, in 1991 and 2006.

During the first few days after the 2006 coup, a few ministers who had close connections to Thaksin were asked to report to the military. But those targeted did not include academics, students and NGO workers.

“A new pattern has emerged [this time]; one that has not occurred for a long time,” Mr Prajak said.

“This shows that the coup-makers plan to stay for the long term, unlike the transitional regimes of the past. They want to create a regime of fear to make sure that everyone is totally silent and submissive, and that no one is against their long stay in power.”

Gen Prayut earlier this month suggested a further 20-month time frame for his stay in power, starting from constitutional drafting to preparations of the next general election. That would mean the current regime will be the longest-ruling coup-installed government since the Cold War.

The NCPO’s interrogation methods, said Mr Prajak, can be equated to the ones used by military governments in Latin America in the 1960s and ’70s to extract information and suppress dissent, as well as by some governments against terrorist groups in the modern era.

But the junta’s aim is neither to extract information nor to indoctrinate.

“The government knows they can’t brainwash these people,” Mr Prajak said. “The aim is to intimidate.”

That a large number of Thais do not see arbitrary detention as a violation of human rights or a form of state coercion is a concern for Mr Prajak, who considers the failure of the middle class to question the government’s actions as a lack of concern for democratic principles.

“Thais are not aware that we are unique in that we are the only country with a military coup-installed government,” he said. “While a society with a military dictatorship is terrifying, a society with an authoritarian mindset is more terrifying.”


V, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, was asked to report to the NCPO a day after the coup along with three other red shirt DJs in Khon Kaen province.

V was a DJ at an Isan radio station and a red shirt leader in Khon Kaen. A large number of community radio stations were shut down following the coup, with the military seizing broadcasting equipment.

At a military camp in Khon Kaen, V was asked to sign an agreement promising to follow NCPO orders and refrain from involvement in political movements.

Following the talks, soldiers frequently visited his restaurant and sought information from nearby vendors.

“They would ask [the vendors] what time I come and go, and what car I drive to work,” said V. “I don’t feel safe. I think my phone is tapped.”

Like other red shirt activists, V has since toned down his activities and criticism of the junta, but said the attempt to brainwash him has failed.

“Deep down inside, the political views of those who call for democracy are still intact, regardless of any attitude adjustment,” he said. “Right and wrong is in our conscience. It’s like when you touch something hot, you can’t say it’s cold.”

Mr Kengkij, the Chiang Mai University lecturer, is still under close watch by the military, who attempt to seek information from other activists, students and artists in Chiang Mai, and monitor his Facebook page.

“They call me a troublemaker. They say, ‘We can’t figure out what he’s up to, but we know he’s up to something,’ ” Mr Kengkij said.

“I was afraid when I was detained, because I didn’t know what they would do to me. But now I just think the military is very weak and insecure.

"My hatred towards them increases every single day.”

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