Justice elusive in deep South
The army's ability to remain beyond the arm of the law is sadly illustrated by the case of Pvt Wichien Phuaksom, a native of Songkhla province, who was allegedly tortured to death by drill sergeants at an army camp.
One year later, little progress has been made in the case, and the lieutenant who allegedly oversaw the fatal beating still walks free.
Pvt Wichien served at the 151st infantry battalion, based at Peeleng camp in Cho Airong district of Narathiwat province, the same camp which was attacked by suspected Islamic insurgents on Jan 4, 2004 who fled with more than 400 firearms.
A master's degree graduate from Thammasat University, Pvt Wichien volunteered to serve in the army in one of the three southernmost restive provinces early last year after leaving the monkhood.
On June 4 last year, his family received a phone call informing them that Pvt Wichien was lying unconscious at the intensive care unit of Naradhiwasrajanagarindra Hospital.
Family members rushed to the hospital from Songkhla only to find him dead the following day from serious injuries allegedly inflicted upon him by his drill sergeants under the supervision of an army lieutenant.
The victim's family claimed Pvt Wichien was dragged across the room and badly beaten up by about 10 drill sergeants using bamboo rods. But the more disturbing part of this tragedy is not only about Pvt Wichien's death from apparent torture but about the inaction of higher-ranking army officers to investigate the case and, worse still, the attempts to spare an army officer from prosecution.
Nine non-commissioned officers were charged with involvement in Pvt Wichien's death but their superior, an army lieutenant, was detained for 15 days and spared criminal prosecution. One year later, the lieutenant, whose father is said to be an army general, still walks free.
Pvt Wichien's case was highlighted at a panel discussion held on June 26 in Bangkok to mark the International Day Against Torture. A relative of the victim, Marisrawan Kaewnopparat, said the army had offered the family 10 million baht to settle the case, which they rejected. All they have asked for is transparency in the case and justice for the victim, she said.
The plight of lowly-paid military defence volunteers in the deep South should also raise concerns in government quarters, especially as volunteers are poised to take on a bigger role in providing security in the region.
In the first six months of this year, 15 volunteers have been killed, eight wounded and 11 of their sidearms stolen. Insurgents appear to be targeting them as a source of weapons.
One volunteer told the Isra news agency that he and his colleagues based at an outpost were given only one pack of instant noodles, three eggs and one pack of instant coffee for four days of sentry duty.
Military rangers and defence volunteers such as these will take over most security work in the restive region from regular troops who are being gradually withdrawn.
Whether this volunteer's plea will ever be heard by his superiors at the Interior Ministry remains to be seen. Yet how can residents rest easy at night knowing that the ministry, which should be doing a better job overseeing security in the deep South, appears to regard the foot soldiers of that unenviable security duty as second-class citizens?
05 July 2012