By The Nation
The organisation’s new report, “We were just toys to them”, documents what it claims is a widespread and long-standing pattern of abuse of new conscripts, including several incidents of rape.
In a written response to Amnesty during the research, Deputy Chief of Staff Air Chief Marshal Chalermchai Sri-saiyud stated that the military follows a policy of “treating new conscripts as family members and friends”.
Clare Algar, Amnesty International’s senior director for Research, Advocacy & Policy, said “abuses of new conscripts in the Thai military have long been an open secret. What our research shows is that such maltreatment is not the exception but the rule, and deliberately hushed within the military.
“Recruits described how sergeants and trainers brutally beat them with sticks and the butts of guns, sexually abused them and forced them to exercise until they fainted,” Algar said.
“The full chain of command bears responsibility for this culture of violence and degradation. Thai authorities must take immediate steps to stop these abusive and degrading practices before the upcoming annual military draft, as well as launch a commission of inquiry to investigate these crimes.”
Amnesty conducted 26 interviews with former and serving conscripted soldiers and commanders, including officers. As well as physical punishments, current and former conscripts described a “range of practices designed to humiliate, including being made to jump into septic tanks and forced to eat ‘like dogs’ using only their mouths”.
Reports of sexual abuse and humiliation were rampant. “Interviewees described being forced by their commanders to masturbate and ejaculate in front of each other, and several described being sexually attacked or witnessing such attacks. Gay conscripts and those perceived to be gay described how they were routinely singled out for acts of sexual violence, harassment and discrimination”, the report claims.
Conscripts described how they were often punished by being smacked, kicked and subjected to other types of beatings, with commanders using their hands, sticks, combat boots, helmets and, at times, the butts of their guns.
“Not a single day passed by without punishment,” Amnesty quoted one interviewee as saying. “Every time the trainers have an excuse to punish you: you’re not chanting loud enough, you’re too slow in the shower, you failed to follow orders strictly, you smoked.”
Another said: “A conscript [...] was once caught drinking [alcohol]. He was hit hard and I saw blood coming out of his mouth.”
Conscripts also described being made to perform physical exercises far beyond their endurance as a form of punishment. This included being forced to stand in positions which often led to fainting or injury.
Amnesty quoted another as saying that “three to four people would faint every day. They have a clinic where these people would be sent”.
A clear majority of conscripts told Amnesty that they had experienced or witnessed sexual abuse, or heard from its victims. Only two said they had not.
A form of collective sexual abuse called “the train” was cited by nine conscripts, who trained in nine different provinces during five different training cycles. “Normally taking place in the bathing area, the practice involves forcing conscripts, while naked, to hold each other’s penises and stand or walk in a column or a circle”, according to Amnesty.
Amnesty documented three cases of rape, one case of attempted rape, one of simulated rape, and two other cases in which conscripts were coerced into providing “sexual favours to commanders”, which likely amounted to rape. Most – though not all – of the rape survivors self-identified or were described as gay.
“These young conscripts are exposed to commanders who inflict sexual abuse, including rape and other forms of torture,” Algar alleged. “These are serious crimes under Thai and international law and those responsible should face justice.”
Amnesty says it strongly recommends that the military take a number of preventive measures, including issuing orders to explicitly prohibit all types of abuse detailed in the report, ensuring that trainers are under constant supervision from higher-ranking commanders and instituting night inspections by officers.
To guarantee a full and transparent examination of the root causes of prevalent abuses, Amnesty has also urged Thailand’s national assembly “to establish a commission of inquiry [COI] to investigate and report on the treatment of conscripts, as well as propose measures necessary to end all abuse of conscripts and end the culture of dehumanisation of conscripts within the Thai military”.
“Following the tragic mass shooting in Korat last month, commander-in-chief General Apirat Kongsompong conceded that the Army needs to open up grievance channels for junior officers. To give meaning to these pledges, the Thai military would need to create a new unit that is authorised, trained and equipped to deal with soldiers’ complaints and act upon them,” said Algar.
“It’s equally important that conscripts and other soldiers are allowed to complain safely and confidentially to the National Human Rights Commission. The authorities must encourage a culture that respects everyone’s dignity, irrespective of seniority, rank, sexual orientation and gender identity,” Algar added.