Bangkok, Thailand – Just hours after Yutthana Saisa was detained in northeastern Thailand last month, the 33-year-old was dead.
Picked up with his younger brother on suspicion of drug crimes, seven soldiers took the two men to a small Buddhist temple nearby for questioning.
Reports say the seven men allegedly subjected him to a violent interrogation in an attempt to force a confession, inflicting wounds that would kill him.
“This case shows the use of extreme violence, including abduction,” says Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, the director of Cross Cultural Foundation, an organisation working on justice and human rights monitoring in Thailand.
Thailand’s military has long faced allegations of abuse, including its treatment of young recruits who are conscripted into the armed forces in a yearly draw. It has long denied the charges, but Yutthana’s brutal death has reignited questions over whether the military has a systemic problem with abuse.
Pornpen has been researching military abuse for decades. She says the military has ramped up anti-drug operations since the coup in 2014, a move she thinks is dangerous because it raises further the risk of excessive use of force.
“It’s not only a culture of violence, but a culture of impunity,” she said.
The Thai military did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but a police investigation has been launched to determine what happened to Yutthana and seven soldiers suspected of involvement face a military probe.
Local media reports say the military also gave Yutthana’s father compensation of 10,000 Thai baht ($313) and paid for his son’s funeral, while the soldiers suspected of playing a role in Yutthana’s death were ordered to ask for the family’s forgiveness.
Analysts say the violence originates inside the military’s own toxic training programmes where officers routinely prey on lower-ranking cadets to demonstrate their power, creating an atmosphere that enables abusive behaviour.
Chatri, a 27-year-old student who preferred to use a pseudonym for fear of reprisals, recalled an overwhelming sense of anxiety as soon as he walked into the army barracks that would soon become his home.
Only a few weeks before, he had been looking forward to continuing his education with the goal of becoming a social worker. But Chatri’s life changed when he was forced to enlist after he was drawn in the lottery for Thailand’s military draft.
“When I went into the military, I knew I’d have to be quiet,” he told Al Jazeera. “My life was taken away.”
Chatri is an openly gay man.
“When people see me, they can recognise that I’m gay. So I decided not to hide myself.”
But that decision had consequences, he explained.
The moment he realised he would be a target was when three non-commissioned officers told him to strip naked in front of them on the first day of training. The abuse that followed was so bad that over the next few months he considered suicide as a way to escape the torment.
Although conscripts often recount stories of physical violence and torture, Chatri was never beaten. Instead, he was abused sexually by seniors and non-commissioned officers.
Amnesty International also recently uncovered abuse inside the military. Their new report, ‘We Were Just Toys to Them,’ found that military conscripts faced harassment, beatings and sexual abuse. Researchers found “a barrage of physical violence, humiliation and sexual abuse that often amounts to torture,” taking place within military training programmes.
For Chatri, the report brought back vivid memories.
Officers would touch him inappropriately and “approach me whenever they wanted,” Chatri said. “They would normalise it.”
On one particularly harrowing night, he was abused by five trainers. On another occasion, he was forced to strip naked.
“I remember thinking at that moment: ‘Why is this happening to me?’ I could not have imagined that my life would be like that,” he said. “I was so afraid. But If I didn’t do it, then it could be worse.”
After three months in training, Chatri called his sister and asked her to use their family connections to get him out of the training programme as soon as possible. He was lucky, he said. Most of the other young men did not have that option.
Human Rights Watch has long monitored the military’s culture of abuse and is now calling on authorities to investigate Yutthana’s death. The rights group says the Thai government should prevent further military abuses by revoking broad powers that allow military personnel to arrest, detain, and interrogate suspected drug users and dealers.
“Thailand has a long record of violent war on drugs, most notably during the Thaksin government where more than 2,800 people were killed,” said Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Now PM Prayuth (Chan-ocha) is following those bloody footsteps.”
Thaksin was notorious for a ruthless anti-drug campaign that allegedly resulted in thousands of state-sanctioned killings in 2003. Researchers say many of those who died were civilians and not involved in the drug trade.
Sunai added that Thailand’s anti-drug laws are being used as a tool for the military to use abusive tactics when conducting raids. He said reports of extrajudicial killing, torture, and arbitrary arrests were “piling up” across the nation and had been “going on without accountability.” He pointed to a 2017 case where a teenage activist was shot and killed by soldiers for alleged drug possession and security footage went missing, as one example.
In recent cases, as with Yutthana, the military has offered financial compensation to the victims or their families in exchange for their agreement to not pursue criminal prosecution. Even when families do decide to pursue justice, police investigations are either hampered, shoddy, or covered up entirely, Sunai said.
And all these incidents continue to occur despite the fact that Thailand is a party to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
After reflecting on the abuse, Chatri still feels like the situation could have been worse.
“It was bad, but my training unit is still better than others because no one died,” he said.
It is not uncommon for military cadets to be found dead under mysterious circumstances because corporal punishment and dangerous hazing rituals are commonplace in cadet school, say human rights watchdogs. Although it is difficult to determine the exact number of deaths in any given year, analysts say multiple cases occur every year based on local media reports and family complaints.
And although Chatri has now left the armed forces, he fears for the other young men now taking his place.
“We need to end this kind of culture,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “We need to stop giving them so much power.”