A Thai national living in exile alleges that he was subject to beatings, suffocation, mock drowning, and execution threats during a 28 day detention by the military junta detention in 2014. The episode left him with psychological trauma and no place to live in Thailand.
In the late afternoon of 27 May 2014, five days after the coup, a band of armed police and military officers arrived at a Chonburi estate thought to belong to Mananchaya Katekaew, an outspoken supporter of the deposed Yingkuck government and a leading figure in the red shirt movement. The raid was one of many operations launched by the coup-makers to preempt any flicker of resistance to the new regime.
Soldiers set up a shield blockade after the 2014 coup.
To surveil the estate, the group occupied a house across the road where a man and woman were living. According to the occupants: “They said they were police officers. At the time, we really weren’t sure where they were from. They said they came to search but they never showed us that they had a warrant with them.”
Consisting of uniformed policemen and plainclothes officers carrying machine guns, the group asked the occupants who they were, seized their phones, tied their hands with cable wire and took them out of the house in separate cars going to different destinations.
Thus began the 28 day military detention of Apirat ‘Maew’ Sripadnet, and his girlfriend, Kritsuda ‘Ple’ Khunasaen. 8 years later, he revealed the torture and humiliation he was subjected to by military interrogators determined to squeeze information out of him.
Wanted and arrested
When the episode took place, military spokespeople were flatly denying allegations that people were being tortured under detention and military bands were staging public concerts in a bid to “restore happiness to the people” urging people to live their lives as normal.
Shortly after the coup, the junta released a list naming people who needed to report to the military for questioning. The list included progressive activists, academics, journalists, lawyers, and outspoken critics of the government, the military, and the monarchy. Houses and offices were raided to collect evidence that individuals linked to the former government were plotting resistance to the junta.
Apirat and Kritsuda were targeted in the process. Prior to the coup, the couple worked together with Mananchaya to provide support to political prisoners and scholarships for refugees. However, they did not try to hide or flee the country because they didn’t think they had done anything wrong.
Aprirat recalls that the police thought that his partner Ple was Mananchaya’s secretary.
They searched the house without showing any warrant and carried off documents related to their work, including information on the food they had given to political prisoners, the names of prisoner relatives, and the names of red shirt protest guards who they had occasionally helped with financial matters. They also confiscated Apirat’s computer and never returned it.
Regarding the news of the officers confiscating a ledger containing names of influential people and gunmen, he said it was a mud-sliding and they never had it.
Apirat was blindfolded and had his hands tied before being placed in a police custody truck. He believes they took him to a military communications unit base close by Victory Monument, one of Bangkok’s main transportation hubs.
“When they first blindfolded me, the wrap was not tight so I could still see things, but when I recognised Victory Monument, the guard tied it again. It felt like they wrapped duct tape around my head to make sure I couldn’t see.”
Taken from the first car, he was put in another vehicle which felt like a military jeep. Not long after, they arrived at the detention centre, where he was put into a room with a cement floor and an air conditioner. No one explained why he was brought there. Everything happened while he was blindfolded and tied.
“They had me sit on a chair until I fell asleep. It was late at night and I was tired so I slept on that chair. Later I woke up, startled because I could feel that people had come into the room. They laid me down on the floor.”
Apirat was still blindfolded when he woke up. He thought it was morning because he could hear the sound of people running outside. Then, 2-3 people entered the room. No introduction was made. The interrogator began the session by stepping on him while he was on the floor as another person looked on.
“They laid me face down … stepping on my torso, my back, as they asked me questions. They read a list of names and asked if I knew this person or that person.”
“I had to answer immediately. If I was slow, they kicked my ribs and poked me in the back and stomach with their combat boots.”
Most of the questions were about people he knew. One of the men released his blindfold a little and showed him photos while he lay on the floor. When Apirat identified some of the men, the interrogation continued with more intensity.
“They slapped, they kicked. I can’t remember if it was the second or the third day. They brought a cloth … and used it to suffocate me, wrapping it around my head. They told me to tell them what I knew or they would continue. I was scared … I shouted. I wanted to cry. I was afraid. They would tighten the cloth until I gasped because I couldn’t breath. Then they would stop and ask more questions.”
8 days in the dark
Each interrogation did not last long and the method was essentially the same. The interrogators came in, asked questions, beat him up, and then left. Apirat spent the first 8 days blindfolded with his hands tied alone in the room. There is a small bucket left for him to urinate in. If he had to defecate, he had to ask the guard outside to take him to the restroom. There were times he yelled out but the guard did not come though.
His interactions with other people consisted of three activies: being fed by a soldier three times a day, being brought outside to use the restroom or shower, and being tortured.
“The soldier who fed me felt sorry for me and asked what I’d done to deserve this. When I didn’t answer he told me to take care of myself. He said he didn’t want Thai people to hurt each other.”
On either the second or the third day, the torture took a new form. Apirat was brought to a pool and held underwater until he almost drowned. Most of the questions that day were about war-grade weapons that he knew nothing about. His denials were punctuated by screams and cries for help.
“Before they pushed me in, the soldiers were signalled to do it. So I had time to prepare myself. Because I had to stay alive. When they did it to me repeatedly, I cried out and shouted for help.”
As far as he can remember, the mock drownings were repeated 2-3 times before he was returned to an air conditioned room that was extremely cold. He recalls repeatedly asking the guard to take him to the toilet, but no one came. He ended up crying alone inside that cold room.
Later they took him for a shower, stripping him of everything but his blindfold. The cable wire on his hands was also removed, allowing him to clean himself up. They tied his legs instead to prevent him from escaping. He recalls hearing many voices talking around him but does not remember what they were talking about.
The next day, he was ill to the point of vomiting out whatever he tried to eat. His room contained nothing more than a bucket and a military futon. The torture continued. At one point, he remembers being threatened with a gun.
“They told me that if I didn’t tell them want they wanted to know they would shoot me. [The interrogator] poked a gun into my neck. I could tell it was real because I could feel the cold metal on my neck. I didn’t think he was going to shoot, but I was afraid.”
Other than during the interrogations, he was left alone in his room, fearful and anxious. He heard the cries of other people but never learned who they were or what they were being subjected to.
“The third day was excruciating. They wrapped my head so tightly that it hurt everywhere. My ears, eyes, nose … so painful, turning my body was also painful.”
“I closed my eyes and asked myself why do I have to be here? Why are they doing this to me? What have I done wrong?”
“Everyday, he was blindfolded and had his hands tied. But one night he woke up to a bright light and realised that his blindfold was no longer on.
“Who did that? With fear of being seen that it was taken off and accused of trying to escape, I decided to blindfolded myself tightly again”
He went back to sleep, but shortly realised that his hands were somehow freed. Again, out of fear that he would be punished, he put the cable wires back on and tied it tightly as it used to be.
Further humiliation with eyes open
On the 8th day of the detention, his blindfold was removed. His detention was already in violation of junta-written provisions which allow the military to detain people without a warrant for a maximum of 7 days. He was told that his girlfriend, Kritsuda, asked to remain in detention out of fear of the danger outside.
He was then asked if he also wanted to stay on and told that going outside could risk his life. He eventually signed a document stating that he would remain in detention for another 7 days.
Afterwards he was tied, blindfolded and taken to another military camp. An hour into the journey, the vehicle turned on to an unsurfaced road, eventually arriving at a house where his blindfold was removed again.
He learned later that it was a guest house located inside the 21st Infantry Regiment base in Chonburi. There, he was no longer subjected to any daily beating but instead monitored by an armed guard, the same one who brought him. “He said he was both military and police officer and told me that I should not try to run away or call for help or he would shoot me.”
Apirat spent 2 days and 2 nights at the guest house. During that time, he was brought outside to confirm that a certain ranch in Chonburi was owned by Mananchaya. There was a roll-call every morning and an exercise period in which he did push-ups, burpees and squat-ups.
On the day they went to see Mananchaya’s house, they stopped for food at a restaurant. At the restaurant, an officer momentarily handed back Apirat’s seized phone.
“When I turned it on, I saw phone numbers, messages from my dad, brother, relatives who called me … I started crying. The soldier sitting with me slammed my head against the table. People are looking, he said, stop it already! What the fuck are you crying about! I almost lost it, but got a grip on my emotions.”
When they returned to the camp, Apirat was called to a shooting range. There were guns resembling M-16 assault rifles, both regular and scoped ones. He was tasked with replacing the used paper targets with new ones.
“And when I went to change the target, they continued shooting ‘bang bang bang’ without caring whether they hit me… they were making fun of me but were told [by other soldiers] to stop.”
Out of camp, out of country
After 2 days and 2 nights at the guesthouse, Apirat was brought back to the first military camp. There was no more humiliation and torture. He was allowed to relax in a room watching a television that only received international channels until he was brought to third military camp in Bang Khen for his release.
There, he said he met with another red shirt protest guard who said he was also beaten during his detention. He did not remember the man’s name.
Before being released, he met Maj Gen Sansern Kaewkamnerd, spokesperson of the junta. Sansern told him to say only good things about the military to help improve its reputation.
“He told me that if I did, I would be released faster,”
Kritsuda, who was released together with Apirat, said in an interview that Sansern also told her to speak positively about the military. Despite saying that she was well-treated on the day of her release, she later said that she was also subjected to beatings, mistreatment, forced to prolong her own detention and threatened to said that she was well-treated before giving the press an interview.
Apirat and Kritsuda released on 24 June 2014 after retroactively signing papers permitting their detention. Apirat was sent to the Crime Suppression Bureau and charged with possessing a pistol, a charge he flatly denies.
He was briefly detained before being granted bail. After that, he went for a health examination and decided to flee to Cambodia with Kritsuda.
A scar that remains
The detention changed his life. At first, he found it difficult to trust anyone, even his closest friends. It later got worsen when other Thais living in self-imposed exile were abducted and murdered.
“It [the detention] caused me to live somewhere else that is far from home, a place that I’m not familiar with. And when I lived there, people I knew were abducted. It made me cautious and afraid,”
“The main problem is that I can’t sleep or wake up and can’t to sleep again. Before coming to Germany, when I was still in Cambodia, after Tar [Wanchalearm Satsaksit] disappeared, I couldn’t tolerate the sight of vans. When I saw one, I panicked. When I came here [to Germany], and saw vans in the countryside, I was still afraid but gotten better now.”
8 years after his detention, Apirat is living in a refugee camp in Germany, waiting for his status as a refugee to be approved. Like other refugees of different nationalities, he is studying German, a feat he is still struggling with.
He still has occasional nightmares and insomnia. Authorities have arranged for him to see a therapist and have also found work for him in a garden to ease his anxiety. It was his first regular therapist arrangement since he fled the Kingdom.
He is still not sure of his future, noting that much depends on how long he has to be in Germany. He plans to take vocational education, find work, and apply for German nationality, actions that lie far ahead in the future.
Asked if there is anything he wanted to say at the end of our conversation, he said:
“I want everyone to fight. Everyone has to fight under a bad economic situation, and a bad Prime Minister. I want people to fight and take care of their health. I hope it will soon change for the better,” said Apirat.