EDITORIAL: Thailand army shoots itself in the foot

BANGKOK (The Nation/ANN) - Report that absolves military officials of any guilt over death of cadet has serious credibility issues

It could be said with certainty that it is not just the family of deceased cadet Phakhapong “Meay” Tanyakan that is dissatisfied with the conclusions of an investigation into the cause of his death but even the public.

The investigation into the death of the first-year cadet at the Armed Forces Academies Preparatory School (AFAPS) by an Army committee has been completed and the findings have been handed over to the Supreme Commander of the Army.

No one has seen the actual report but it has been revealed that the investigation committee had concluded Phakhapong had died of natural causes. The family now plans to sue the Army.

The preliminary autopsy report said he had died of heart failure. But the second autopsy has indicated that Phakhapong had suffered a physical attack, raising concerns that corporal punishment may have caused his death.

Citing “natural causes” is a hard sell considering the fact that Phakhapong was a healthy young man.

The committee, however, confirmed that Phakhapong had been subjected to inappropriate punishment at the AFAPS during the 48-hour period before his death on October 17.

The four senior students who had ordered inappropriate punishment had already been punished – losing good behaviour points and their status as commanding students. The removal of such a status was a big dishonour to AFAPS students.

But they refused to link the two – the beating and the death. And the hush-hush manner behind the handling of the investigation doesn’t help the situation.

The cadet’s death has generated a great deal of heated debate among the general public who believe this case is much more than the death of a young man but the fallout of an outdated tradition of hazing in which younger students are at the mercy of their seniors.

People have grounds to suspect that there was foul play in his death. They pointed to an incident in August when the young man was punished by senior students at AFAPS.

On a personal level, Phakhapong’s family has a right to know the truth. At the social level, the public has a right to voice its concern.

At the political level, it seems the military bigwigs, who have been trying to play politics, have repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with their insensitive statements, including remarks like they had been through the same experience and if any young man could not stand the heat he should not enter the kitchen.

With their loose-tongued remarks, they compromised the integrity of the official investigation.

Purely on principle, it should be unacceptable for an Army committee to investigate another Army committee simply because there is nothing independent about it.

If the Army is serious about restoring its credibility and integrity, it has to allow an independent committee to be set up and that investigation must be as transparent as possible with due consideration to the privacy of the victim’s family.

The long-standing violent tradition of hazing in the military prep school must be stopped. It breeds false pride and insecurity and makes these cadets cold leaders in the future.

The military needs to go back and read the international convention that the country has signed up to and come up with a new set of norms and regulations for its soldiers and cadets.

There have been too many deaths in the barracks for too long and for no reason. It’s time to dump this outdated tradition that continues to give the Army a big black eye.