Karen allegedly tortured to death during conscription: mother's testimony

Pvt Somchai Si-ueangdoi is from the Karen ethnic group and from Chiang Mai. He decided to serve in the military to earn money to support his mom and sister after his dad passed away.  About two years of conscription, Pvt Somchai was allegedly beaten to death. Like many other cases related to torture in the barracks, the court dismissed the case. 

Thai national identification card of Pvt Somchai Si-ueangdoi Photo credit:  Voice from Thais 

On 31 May 2016, Ratchada Civil Court read the verdict dismissing the case of Suda Si-ueangdoi v. Ministry of Defence, the First Defendant; the Royal Thai Army, the Second Defendant; and the Office of the Prime Minister, the third Defendant for a tort claim. Suda Si-ueangdoi demanded a remedy for the violation of the rights to life, physical integrity or mental integrity on behalf of her son, a conscript who died on an active duty at Kawila Military Camp in Chiang Mai, allegedly as a result of torture. The Court ruled that the testimonies from the mother and sister of the deceased were hearsay evidence, based on what they heard from the deceased. However, the Court heard that a physician, who served as the defence witness and who treated the deceased, was a significant and credible witness. The Court concluded that Pvt Somchai died from pneumonia and influenza and that he was not beaten. Hence, the death was not a tort claim.  The Court also ruled that military officials exercised due care in the treatment of Pvt Somchai as their subordinate. Thus, the Court concluded that the treatment was not an act of omission from severe and undue negligence. The Court ruled that the three defendants were not liable for a remedy to the plaintiff, and that the case be dismissed and all fees vested with the State. The plaintiff’s attorney intends to appeal.

The Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF) stated that the incident happened during 21-23 January 2014. Pvt Somchai Si-uenangdoi, 20, a conscript at Kawila Military Camp in Chiang Mai, called his family by phone, allegedly recounting that he had been subjected to ill-treatment; his family testified to this information in court.  Pvt Somchai claimed that he was beaten by three army personnel who covered his head with a metal bucket and beat him about 20 times on his head, back and chest. Subsequently, on 28 January 2014, Pvt Somchai was taken to Kawila Army Camp Hospital because of a cough, pharyngitis, laboured breathing, exhaustion, and profuse sweating. Medical personnel at the Kawila Hospital examined him and transferred him to Theppanya Hospital in Chiang Mai because of the severity of his symptoms and the possibility of inflammation. Somchai passed away on 29 January 2014 at 10.40 am. The autopsy was conducted by doctors at Maharaj Nakorn Chiang Mai Hospital. The autopsy result concluded that the body did not have any wounds and the cause of death was H1N1 bird flu infection and pneumonia.  However, during his treatment at Theppaya Hospital, there were twenty flu patients and Pvt Somchai was the only person to pass away from the flu. His family said Pvt Somchai was in good health and that he would not have died unless he had been tortured. The family was confident that the beating directly contributed to his weakened body, thus he was more susceptible to inflammation.  

Suda Si-ueangdoi, Pvt Somchai’s mother.   (Photo from Voice from Thais)

Pvt Somchai’s Mother’s Comments After the Verdict.

Suda Si-ueangdoi is a 57-year-old member of the Pakayaw (Karen) ethnic minority. She did not attend the verdict reading. On that day, she was farming her rice fields at her Chiang Mai home. Prachatai reporter reached her by phone. She speaks only Karen. Her poor Thai requires the use of an interpreter, who lives near her.  She apologized for keeping us waiting, as she had just walked back from the rice fields and from tending her cattle. The distance from her house to the rice fields, even in the dry season, still requires many minutes crossing hills on foot.

Suda Si-ueangdoi had a son — Somchai Si-ueangdoi, who was a little over twenty years old, and a daughter. In 2012, her husband passed away suddenly and her son became the main provider for the family. He decided to volunteer for recruitment to earn a salary to continue the construction of a house which was begun by his father, and to buy a motorcycle to get to the rice fields and take his mother to see the doctor.  Suda suffered from depression, and after her husband died the symptoms seemed to worsen. She had to borrow her neighbour’s motorcycle to travel to and from her treatment in the city twice a month. 

Somchai was recruited in May 2012. He would have been discharged from the army at the end of April 2014 if he had not passed away on 29 January 2014. It was only three months before he would have returned to his mother and sister.

On 23 January, Somchai called his mother, telling her he had a fever and body pain and asking if she could conduct a healing ritual based on their ethnic belief.  Suda replied that she would try if she could and suggested that Somchai also take fever relief medication.  He said he had taken some but it did not work. After she hung up, she had another call. This time, her daughter answered. She surreptitiously listened to their conversation and figured out that Somchai had been beaten. Earlier, she was always concerned that her son would be beaten because she heard that any army conscript who went back to the camp late would be punished.

After joining the army, Somchai transferred 5,000 baht to his mother every month. His latest home visit lasted two weeks before he returned to the military camp on 16 January 2014, two weeks later than the permitted period. Somchai told Suda that he did not have enough money for the bus fare back to the military camp, because he had not received any salary since August.

After 24 January 2014, Somchai called home several times each day. He asked how to treat pain from large bruises in the middle of his back.  His fever did not improve and the bruises on his back made Suda feel more concerned and even more upset. She asked why he did not go to the hospital at the Camp, as Kawila Army Camp has a hospital in the compound.  Somchai said he did not have the nerve to go to a military hospital. He said he would wait until his condition improved and request leave for treatment at a hospital near his home. Eventually, he died on 29 January 2014.

“I regret that I trusted the army and his supervisors. I thought the army camp would call me. I thought it was like a school, where a teacher would call a parent in case a student was sick. Then the parents can visit or the sick would be taken to hospital. I thought the supervisors would have taken him to hospital. But no one informed me that my son was in a serious condition. I was contacted on the phone only when his condition was irreversible.”

Suda said she felt guilty that she did not ask who was responsible for the ill-treatment. She asked about his symptoms every day. After her husband passed away and her son joined the army, she has been more absent-minded. The crux of the event was when she could not be convinced that her son had died from a fever. After Somchai died, she went to Kawila Army Camp to collect his personal belongings, and learned that two privates sleeping next to Somchai in the dormitory did not have any symptoms of fever and seemed to be in good health. She believes that there has been a cover-up, as the autopsy indicated that Somchai’s body did not have any wounds from an assault.

After learning the autopsy result, Suda, who earns on average 1,000-2,000 baht a month from paddy farming and basketry, borrowed 6,300 baht from her neighbours to seek justice in Bangkok. 

“I do not want any compensation. I want other people to know that they cannot trust an Army Camp. I was wrong to trust them. I want other people whose sons were conscripted to know, so they will not have to suffer like my son suffered.”

Suda affirmed her quest for justice.  The pain of losing her son, the family’s breadwinner, without any justice motivated her to seek a legal action, despite the difficulty, during a time of military domination, of identifying witnesses. She is steadfast about carrying on, not just for her own sake, but for other people’s sons, whose lives are lost in the same manner.  Even though the court dismissed her case, she would continue the fight, with her attorney and other people who have supported her.