THE suspicious death of teenage army cadet Pakapong Tanyakan at the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School (AFAPS) in Nakhon Nayok, Thailand, has ignited debate about the culture of punishment, beating and hazing at military training institutions.
Pakapong’s case made national headlines after it was revealed the military had returned the young man’s corpse to his parents with the brain, heart and stomach missing.
The family, who was not informed that the vital organs had been removed, only discovered they were missing when they took his body for an independent autopsy.
According to Supicha Tanyakan, the dead cadet’s sister:
“When they opened up his skull, there was only tissue paper.”
The parents finally received their son’s vital organs last week on Thursday, with an explanation that the military had kept the dead cadet’s heart, brain and stomach for further examination. The cadet’s parents have since passed the boy’s corpse and organs to the Central Institute of Forensic Science (CIFS) where DNA testing and a fully independent autopsy will be conducted to determine the cause of the death.
The results are expected this week.
While the military’s official explanation is that Pakapong died from heart failure, there is growing suspicion that his death came as result of the military school’s culture of punishments and hazing, and it has been revealed that Pakapong had sustained fractured ribs, broken collarbones and internal bruising.
News of the cadet’s death has also sparked outcry in the kingdom, fuelled by daily reports on the case by local television news networks and social media.
Responding to questions about the culture of hazing in the armed forces, Thailand’s military leaders defended such practices, with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha responding bluntly to the press, saying:
“What’s wrong with it? I went through it all.”
Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan explained that hazing and punishments are to be expected in the academy, whilst physical punishment is a part of military training. He also defended the culture, explaining that he too had gone through such hazing.
“But I didn’t die,” he said, also arguing that for cadets to avoid such fatalities it’s best that they, “Don’t join up, then.”
The actions of the AFAPS and the reaction of Thailand’s military leaders have irked a general public already growing weary after three years of military rule.
The perceived lack of transparency in the cadet’s death, compounded by the apparent lack of compassion from the military government, appear to be further tarnishing the military’s image.
With Pakapong’s case making headlines, fatalities involving other young conscripts have come to light, including the deaths Private Noppadol Worakitpan, 21, and Private Yutthakinun Boonniam, 22, who both died this year.
Noppadol, who was stationed in Surat Thani, died at home after leaving the barracks. His sister learnt from fellow conscripts that Noppadol had been physically punished before returning home. Yutthakinun, also stationed in Surat Thani, died in the hospital on April 1 after being subject to two days of disciplinary punishment.
On Nov 24, a government spokesman announced that four AFAPS officers had been transferred while the investigation into Pakapong’s death is ongoing.
According to Lieutenant-General Sansern Kaewkamnerd: “The Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters has transferred officers who are involved with this case so that they will not interfere with the evidence or witnesses.”
While this measure is an important step towards justice, it seems that this decision was taken to restore the public image of the military, coming as it does over a month after the cadet’s death, and only after a public outcry.
Hazing and bullying in the military is by no means a problem confined to Thailand.
However, Thailand’s highly stratified social structure, which obligates juniors to submit to seniors, and can be found in all social institutions – education, the workplace and the family – is often taken to the extreme in military institutions. These values allow second and third- year students to mete out unsupervised, physical punishments on first-year students, and create an environment where bullying and abuse thrive.
An online campaign calling for an independent investigation into Pakapong’s death, and an end to institutional violence in military training schools, has already received over 60,000 signatures.
Unfortunately, Thailand’s military leaders have made it clear that the army will conduct its own investigation, without help from National Human Rights Commission, and many observers expect that the outcome of this ‘official investigation’ will be similar to that of previous cases, with a handful of low ranking officers receiving light disciplinary action.