It's a mystery that has gripped Thailand for months. Pakapong Tanyakan, a handsome, promising young cadet in the Thai armed forces, suddenly died last October at an army training academy on the outskirts of Bangkok. The military told his parents he died of a "sudden cardiac arrest."
But rumors of abuse had long swirled around the military. Pakapong had allegedly been the victim of brutal corporal punishment only days before. The 18-year-old had been forced to lean forward with his arms behind his back and his forehead on the ground and then shift his weight from one foot to the other in a sweltering sauna until he passed out from exhaustion. His crime? Walking on a footpath reserved for senior officers.
The whole ordeal ended with Pakapong being sent to a nearby hospital to recover.
When Pakapong returned to the academy, the abuse allegedly continued. Then two days later, he collapsed and died. Military doctors told the family they had conducted an autopsy and gave his parents a death certificate listing cardiac arrest as the cause of death.
The story then took a darker turn when his parents secretly got an independent doctor to conduct his own autopsy only to discover that most of Pakapong's vital organs—including his heart, stomach, and brain—were missing. The teenager's body was instead stuffed with tissue paper. He also had multiple broken bones and signs of bruising across his body consistent with abuse.
Outraged Thais quickly accused the military of a cover up. It's not the first time the Thai armed forced have been accused of abusive hazing rituals. A Navy officer came under fire in 2015 for chaining his "servant soldier" to a tire at his home. Last year, another cadet, 22-year-old Yutthakinun Boonniam, was allegedly beaten to death a military training camp. Similar stories of brutal abuse and death make headlines year after year.
On Wednesday, Pakapong's family walked out of a meeting with military officials and told the press gathered outside that they planned to file a lawsuit against the officers tasked with investigating the matter. They've also filed a criminal complaint with the police, but the investigation has made little progress.
But as the case continues to work its way through the courts, a bigger question looms over the entire incident—why is the Thai military so resistant to long overdue reforms?
"The brutality and maltreatment in the Thai military has been around for decades," explained Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Thai political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. "After the Cold War, with greater democratization, the Thai military was in need of reform and there were some promising signs in the late 1990s. But as the military re-entered and became dominant in Thai politics over the past 12 years, the trends have gone the other way.”
The military has played an outsized role in Thai society since the military junta seized control in a 2014 coup. The junta's prime minister, Prayut Chan-Ocha, was dismissive of calls to crack down on abuse and corporal punishment in the armed forced when asked about Pakapong's death. "What's wrong with it?" Prayut told reporters. "I went through it all."
Thitinan said that he wasn't surprised at all by the Prime Minister's refusal to address the notion that the military may be in need of reform.
“Reforming the Thai military is more difficult than ever because the generals have been able to entrench and embed their roles and interests in political institutions from the constitution to parliament, including one third of the legislature being under the military's purview” Thitinan told VICE. “So it will take a series of crises to provide the necessary rationale and pretext to usher in reforms.”
The Thai constitution requires all men to serve in the military in some capacity. Those who don't volunteer before the age of 21 are subjected to a random lottery where conscripts are required to serve two years in the army. That raffle is so terrifying for many young Thai men that they entertain thoughts of running away or trying to bribe their way out of service.
“I was terrified of attending the raffle,” a student at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University told me, as long as I would keep his name out of this story. He was afraid that there would be consequences for speaking out against the draft lottery system. "I was dreading being forced into serving in the military.
"Many of my friends described how difficult and terrifying it could be for some, especially for the smaller ones,” he explained, lifting his hand shoulder-height as an illustration. "There were even moments where I thought I’d simply run away. That’s one way I thought I could avoid it."
When it came time for him to participate in the lottery, he drew a black card–meaning he was free to go—and he was allowed to finish his education. But as many as 100,000 others a year aren't so lucky. Drawing a red card means two years of service, often undergoing brutal hazing rites in what human rights activists have called a "culture of torture."
"Pakapong’s death is not an isolated incident," said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "The military faces a chronic inability to end abuses in its barracks. While stating that corporal punishment is forbidden in military training, the Thai government and the military have been [unable to explain] why there continues to be deaths and injuries of cadets and conscripts.
“More importantly, there is no answer as to why there has been repeated failures to have credible investigations of these cases. Those responsible have been able to get off the hook, and the culture of impunity prevails."