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Abuse and torture 'rife' in Thai military

A new report highlights mistreatment of conscripts including rampant physical and sexual abuse

Robert Freeman, Bangkok

Robert Freeman, Bangkok

Updated: March 24, 2020 06:04 AM GMT
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Abuse and torture 'rife' in Thai military

An Amnesty International report claims conscripts to the Thai army are routinely abused and humiliated. (Photo: Wikipedia)

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Conscripts in the Thai military are routinely abused, humiliated and tortured, rights group Amnesty International says in a new report.

In the report poignantly titled “We were just toys to them,” the rights group details what it says is the systematic mistreatment of new conscripts including rampant physical and sexual abuse.

Amnesty International based its assessment on 26 anonymous interviews with former and current conscripted soldiers and officers, who told the group about instances of degrading treatment to which they or other soldiers were subjected.

“[They] described a range of practices designed to humiliate, including being made to jump into septic tanks and forced to eat like dogs [off the floor] using only their mouths,” Amnesty International said.

“Reports of sexual abuse and humiliation were rampant. Interviewees described being forced by their commanders to masturbate and ejaculate in front of each other, and several described being sexually attacked or witnessing such attacks.”

Gay and effeminate conscripts are especially targeted for some forms of sexual violence, harassment and discrimination, the group said.

“Recruits described how sergeants and trainers brutally beat them with sticks and the butts of guns, sexually abused them and forced them to exercise until they fainted,” said Clare Algar, Amnesty International’s senior director for research, advocacy and policy.

The Thai Royal Army, which carries inordinate political and economic influence in Thailand, has long been accused of turning a blind eye to the routine abuse of conscripts, who make up about a half of the country’s 350,000-strong armed forces.

Under Thailand’s compulsory military service law, young men who have turned 21 are entered into a recruitment lottery each year, with a third needing to serve in the army.

Many conscripts are ill equipped physically or mentally for military life. Acts of hazing aimed at turning them into “real men” are reported to be commonplace on army camps.

It is not uncommon for some conscripts to suffer permanent debilities or even die of injuries suffered during hazing and other forms of punishment meted out to them.

“Not a single day passed by without punishment,” one interviewee told Amnesty International.

“Every time the trainers have an excuse to punish you: you’re not chanting loud enough, you’re too slow in the shower, you failed to follow orders strictly, you smoked.” 

Another interviewee described seeing a fellow conscript have his mouth beaten bloody for a minor infraction.

The offenders in such cases are rarely brought to justice.

“The full chain of command bears responsibility for this culture of violence and degradation,” Algar said. “The Thai authorities must take immediate steps to stop these abusive and degrading practices before the upcoming annual military draft, as well as launch a commission of inquiry to investigate these crimes.” 

The Thai army has denied that a culture of abuse and impunity permeates its barracks.

“In the past two to three years, there have been very few cases, so some of the cases people talk about are maybe old information,” defense ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Kongcheep Tantrawanit told a news agency in response to the report.

“We are taking the issue of abuses seriously and any commander implicated will be transferred, face disciplinary action and criminal charges too.” 

Last month the Thai army’s culture of abuse was highlighted when a disgruntled soldier went on a shooting spree in a provincial city, killing 29 people including his commanding officer and the officer’s mother.

The soldier, who was shot dead by sharpshooters inside a shopping mall where he had taken hostages, said on social media that he had been prompted to act after the officer and his mother had cheated him out of money in a housing deal.

The mass shooting dealt a blow to the image of the top brass who have long portrayed themselves as guardians of the nation and upholders of its virtues.

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