In Thai Military, It’s Obedience or Death

Image: Supicha Tanyakan / Facebook
Re•tention: Pravit Rojanaphruk

A story ripped from the pages of a horror novel turned out to be true in Juntaland.

A 19-year-old armed forces cadet previously subjected to harsh physical discipline suddenly died a day after returning to school from a break. His parents were told he suffered from a sudden cardiac arrest but became suspicious of possible foul play after a detailed autopsy report never came.

Military trainee deaths are all too common, so that’s not the most horrific part.

It was late last month, when the teen’s body was to be cremated, that his family snuck out his cadaver for an independent examination.

What they found was shocking – his stomach, heart, bladder and brain were missing. Tissue paper was found stuffed inside his skull where that last one should have been. Upon further examination, the independently run Central Institute of Forensic Science found signs of internal bruising and a broken rib.

Instead of pulp fiction grist, this is the true story of the death of Pakapong “May” Tanyakan, a freshman cadet at the Armed Forces Academic Preparatory School in Nakhon Nayok province.

On Tuesday, his parents courageously demanded the truth about what had happened to their son at a news conference. The news was received with shock and horror by the Thai public.

Not so much by the top defense official, deputy junta leader Prawit Wongsuwan.

Asked how such deaths could be avoided in the future, Gen. Prawit suggested that death was just a fact of military life.

“Do not enroll. Do not become a soldier. We only take those who are willing,” he said.

Willing to do what exactly was left unsaid. Willing to die? And willingness wasn’t a factor for the many young conscripts – usually from less affluent families – forced to serve the military that have died.

After denying anything improper had been done, authorities Thursday handed the organs over to the family and vowed to release a detailed autopsy within a week. The family is sensibly enough, having the organs tested to verify they came from their son.

The authorities never explained why the family wasn’t told their son was not returned to them whole. They said the organs were kept for ongoing examination.

In his comments, Gen. Prawit undercut the elite academy’s denials that corporal punishment played any role in the cadet’s death. He told reporters about a time he passed out after being physically punished.

That only only raised more doubts and speculation that Pakapong might have been punished to death. In fact, one media outlet published a chat log in which Pakapong reportedly told a friend that he had been punished so severely that his heart stopped beating, requiring CPR to revive him.

“The doctor saved me in time,” Pakapong purportedly wrote via Line.

Pakapong’s mother, Sukanya said in an exclusive television interview Wednesday morning that her son, who had been proud to be accepted into the academy, phoned just an hour before he died on Oct. 17 to say he wanted to quit, despite recent assurances to his father that he had gone too far to turn back.

Good luck to those still hoping the truth will come out from the military regime and the school. On Friday, the military said no civilian inquiry would be allowed, as it should be entrusted with impartially investigating its own.

If no true accounting emerges about Pakapong’s death, the intended or unintended consequence will be cadets who will obey without thinking, fearful for their lives. This is not good for them and having such soldiers cannot be good for Thai society. It’s also unlikely this will be the last suspicious death in the ranks.

Independent oversight is needed to prevent corporal punishment from turning deadly in the future. This is much easier said than done when Thailand has been under unaccountable military rule for three and a half years.

Pakapong’s elder sister, Supicha Tanyakan posted last week on Nov. 16 that the family knows whom they are up against.

“We know who we are fighting against. Don’t mention the chance of winning because the percentile is likely zero. Doing it only make us weary in vain… And doing so won’t resurrect the dead…”

Four days later, on Monday, she reached out again online to say that her brother may be dead but he still has to continue to keep fighting.