CHIANG RAI — A soldier stepped forward to admit that he killed a motorist at a northern checkpoint last week, police said Thursday.
The confession of the soldier, who remains anonymous, came after the community rallied to pressure police to come clean about what happened following the arrest of a civilian for killing the motorist.
It was initially not disclosed that armed soldiers were present when the motorist was shot in the dead after apparently not noticing the impromptu checkpoint set up in the northern province of Chiang Rai.
The soldier is in military custody and will soon be transferred to police custody, according to the chief of the police station investigating the crime.
“He has not yet surrendered to police,” Col. Vicharn Churit said today, adding that the soldier was carrying an M-16 rifle at the time. He would not name the soldier, saying he was unsure about the information he had at hand.
The development was yet another twist in the investigation of the Jan. 2 shooting death of Sorachai Sathitraksadumrong. Security officers reportedly opened fire on the 34-year-old contractor after he failed to stop at the checkpoint.
Police initially arrested deputy community leader Wutthichai Injai and identified him as having fired the fatal shot. He was jailed to await trial. Wutthichai has reportedly denied the allegations and maintained he only fired warning shots.
However, Sorachai’s family and neighbors staged several protests and told the media they heard Sorachai was killed by a soldier. Police soon walked back their narrative, admitting on Tuesday that a soldier could have been responsible.
On Wednesday, the victim’s family filed a complaint to deputy police commander Srivara Ransibrahmanakul, who promised them the investigation would be fair.
Col. Vicharn said Wutthichai was recently granted bail but will face legal prosecution until evidence clears him of any wrongdoing.
“If the evidence doesn’t implicate him, then he will be treated accordingly,” Vicharn said.
A ballistics analysis of the round which killed Sorachai found it was consistent with an M-16, forensic police have been quoted saying. Vicharn declined to comment on that detail.
Though local police are often used as proxies for military law enforcement, civilian law enforcement shows great deference when soldiers are implicated in crimes.
Defense Ministry spokesman Kongcheep Tantravanich said the military will convene a disciplinary investigation into the shooting. The spokesman said soldiers are not allowed to fire their weapons unless threatened first.
He added that the military will not consider disarming soldiers at checkpoints across the country, citing safety concerns.
“Soldiers still need weapons, no matter what,” Maj. Gen. Kongcheep said. “Suppose they don’t carry weapons, and someone with weapons tries to harm them, what are they going to do?”
For a peacetime military, the armed forces have a poor record of killing civilians, typically with with mild or no legal consequences for those responsible.
In March, an ethnic Lahu activist was shot dead at a checkpoint in Chiang Mai province. The military maintained he was resisting a search and threatening to harm the officers, while witnesses told the media soldiers shot him as he was running away.
Eight months after receiving security footage of what happened, police investigating the soldiers said last month they are still unable to view it.
No military personnel has never been prosecuted for their use of force against civilians in 2010 political unrest, which resulted in the deaths of more than 90 people.