Culture of Torture and Intimidation: The Military in Thailand

In 2019, Thai authorities confirmed that four more people were killed in a late-night attack by Muslim insurgents in Southern Thailand. The insurgents assaulted a military outpost in response to the recent torture of a Muslim rebel suspect. The suspect was left in a critical condition after spending several hours in a notorious army interrogation unit. Even though Thailand is party to the 2007 United Nations’ Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), the Thai army has been torturing prisoners for a long time.[1] The military’s rampant use of torture has provoked many insurgent attacks like the most recent one in 2019.

Torture is the infliction of physical torment on individuals by the state to extract a confession, gain information, or simply for intimidation.[2] While a severe human rights violation, Torture is often still widely used as one of the most brutal forms of authority. Classical notions of torture included inflicting wounds that marked the body of the tortured as a symbol of state power over  its citizens.[3] However, modern torture methods often aim to intimidate the tortured in a more psychological and less physically apparent manner.[4] Torturers sometimes avoid creating visible scars or wounds on their prisoner’s body, which makes it harder for the individual to prove their suffering. This ensures that torture remains underground, reducing the credibility of the tortured to mere accusations.

However, torture in Thailand has been used in ways that has not always been secretive in nature. While primarily used in detention centers and police custody, Thai security forces have also used torture in public spaces such as streets and police roadblocks. The 2014 coup led by army officers gave rise to an environment where few could speak up against the military. Moreover, those who did were violently silenced. The transition towards a dictatorship from a democratic system of governance ensured that torture could occur in public view.

The Royal Thai Armed Forces, led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, seized power in May 2014 and formed The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). Since then, torture and brutality by military authorities has become commonplace across the country. According to a report by Amnesty International, Thai soldiers and policemen have targeted those suspected of being insurgents, political opponents, and individuals especially from the most vulnerable sections of society. The report, “Make Him Speak by Tomorrow: Torture and Other Ill-Treatment in Thailand”, documented 74 cases of torture and other violent treatment at the hands of soldiers and the police between 2014 and 2015 alone. These include beatings, suffocation by plastic bags, strangling by hand or rope, waterboarding, electric shocks to the genitals, and other forms of painful and humiliating abuse of individuals in custody.[5]

The Thai military has referred to torturing political activists, opposition leaders, and journalists as ‘attitude adjustment’ designed to encourage them to support the government. Rather than isolated incidents, torture has been used to systemically suppress those who opposed the military government.[6] In addition to this, the military also regularly tortures suspected drug users, migrant workers, members of ethnic minorities, and indigenous people as a routine security measure. It is usual for people suspected of being drug addicts to be beaten and humiliated in public by military or police officials. Furthermore, many undocumented and unregistered migrant workers in Thailand are similarly susceptible to abuses of power by government officials. In particular, the authorities use their power to deport individuals without providing them access to judicial or administrative processes. This makes undocumented migrants particularly vulnerable to violence, coercion, and extortion.[7]

Thailand’s legal system fails to acknowledge or address the issue of torture, which has made it easier for the military to use it openly. The Thai Penal Code does not define torture as a distinct criminal offence.[8][9] Moreover, Thai law does not prohibit the practice of obtaining evidence through torture or other forms of manipulation, nor does it prohibit using the evidence in court.[10] However, Thai law has several prohibitions against any form of unlawful detention. Under the law, there is a duty to bring detainees before court within 48 hours of arrest. The detainees also have a right to a legal counselor present during questioning. However, these statutes can be easily overridden by the Thai Martial Law Act, which has been applied in several conflict zones in South Thailand continuously since 2006. Furthermore, a series of post-coup orders issued by the National Council for Peace and Order can also override the existing safeguards against illegal detention provided for by Thai law.[11] The Martial Act also allows military officers to detain suspected individuals in unofficial locations (places that are not prisons, detention centers, or police stations). This makes it easier for military officers to use torture as an intimidation tactic in an undocumented manner, and hence, it is not accounted for.

The arbitrary use of torture in Thailand has come along with the breakdown of democracy and the establishment of a more authoritarian power structure. Therefore, the use of torture is less about inflicting pain or extracting information and more about humiliation and intimidation. While the torture done in official and unofficial detention is used to suppress and intimidate those suspected of working against the coup, public use of torture humiliates and degrades the individual. The latter also uses the audience as a part of the act of torture. The public views the tortured as an outcast an example of the consequences of disobedience. The tortured individual’s humiliation by military officials is meant to send the message that their authority is absolute and demands compliance.


Works Cited

[1] Khidhir, Sheith. “Thailand: Land of Torture?” The ASEAN Post, 30 July 2019, theaseanpost.com/article/thailand-land-torture.

[2] Rejali, Darius. “Torture and Democracy”. Princeton University Press, 2007. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rwf8

[3] Rejali.

[4] Rejali.

[5] “Thailand: A Culture of Torture under the Military.” Amnesty International, 2016. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/09/thailand-a-culture-of-torture-under-the-military/

[6] Amnesty, International. “MAKE HIM SPEAK BY TOMORROW: TORTURE AND OTHER ILL-TREATMENT IN THAILAND.”  2016, pp. 4–47

[7] Amnesty International.

[8] “Torture in Thailand.” Asian Human Rights Commission, www.humanrights.asia/tortures/torture-in-thailand/

[9] Amnesty International, “Thailand: A Culture of Torture under the Military.” 

[10] Amnesty International, “Thailand: A Culture of Torture under the Military.”

[11] Amnesty International, “Thailand: A Culture of Torture under the Military.”

Shreyashree Nayak
Shreyashree Nayak is a YRIS Foreign Correspondent writing from New Delhi, India.