The Thai military has boasted of its humane treatment of those detained in the wake of the May 22 coup that installed Army leader Prayuth Chan-ocha as the country’s leader. But Kritsuda Kunasan, who had devoted herself to helping political prisoners and their families before she was arrested, tells a dramatically different and frightening story.
After being released, Kritsuda and her boyfriend, who is not named, escaped from the country and are now at an undisclosed location in Europe, where they have applied for political asylum, saying they could never live in Thailand and be silent.
The 27-year-old political activist described a traumatic ordeal after a month of being detained in the army camp, facing what she said was severe physical and mental abuse and being told to falsely implicate ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in funding the opposition Red Shirt movement. She decided to break her silence after being freed from caged detention, she said, telling the world what really happened to her during those horrific days.
Kritsuda’s story was aired for the first time on Aug. 2. It can be found here on a “Thai Voice Media” broadcast, on the Internet. She was interviewed by Jom Petchpradab, a well-known media personality who himself rejected the legitimacy of the coup and subsequently was told to turn himself in but refused to do so. He is also outside the country.
The half-hour interview, which unveiled a wrenching story, went viral until the military shut it down. At many points during the interview, Kritsuda was on the verge of breaking down as she remembered her experience under detention.
Kritsuda was tortured and physically humiliated repeatedly by military officers, she said.
The story began with more than 100 soldiers raiding the Chonburi residence of Kritsuda’s boss southeast of Bangkok, also a red-shirt member, who was only named as “May,” and whose role was to provide financial assistance to the relatives of political prisoners.
May was not at her residence when the military turned up. They immediately arrested Kritsuda and took her to an unidentified military camp. Throughout the journey, Kritsuda said, she was blindfolded. She was not informed where she was heading.
At the army camp, Kritsuda spent her first night blindfolded out of an apparent concern by the military that she might recognize their faces. They threatened her, with one saying “I will kill you if you remove your blindfold.” she said.
In the morning when she woke up, soldiers started to punch her in the head and face for accidentally loosening the blindfold. For the first seven days, Kritsuda’s face was covered up, her hands tied. They fed her, removed her pants and underwear when she needed to go to the toilet and made her shower in front of military officers, she said.
“This was a kind of sexual abuse,” Kritsuda said.
For the next few weeks, Kritsuda underwent rigorous interviews. The military officers, she said, expected certain kind of answers, which might not necessarily reflect the truth.
For example, when army officers asked Kritsuda about the source of funds for red shirt activities, she replied: “From May’s private funds and some from a red-shirt group in Europe.”
But that was not the answer expected. “The military wanted me to connect Thaksin with any activities of the red shirts,” she said. When she failed to provide satisfactory answers, she was hit and punched in the face.
After Kritsuda had disappeared at the end of May for more than two weeks, her boyfriend, who is not named, began to worry about her safety.
He recorded his plea to the military and circulated it on YouTube, asking about her whereabouts. Human Rights Watch picked up the story and demanded that the military come clean to the public about Kritsuda’s detention, which by that time had well exceeded the normal seven-day interrogation period in army custody.
Amnesty International also called for her release, saying: “Arbitrary detention, denial of bail and prosecution are increasingly being used as measures to keep people from speaking out about the political situation.”
Under public and international pressure, the military forced Kritsuda to fake a story on camera that she had been well looked after in the army camp. The military allowed journalists from its own television station to interview Kritsuda, who met her boyfriend for the first time since she had been kidnapped.
Kritsuda saidin the interview that Colonel Sansern “KaiOo” Kaewkamnerd, former spokesperson for the Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation, instructed her to publicly hold the military in high regard and that, obviously, she must not mention the abuse.
The bogus interview was aired on the army-owned television station to assure the public and human rights organizations over Kritsuda’s safety.
But the interview failed to conceal some odd answers that were too good to be true. She told the journalists, “I am so happy here in the army camp, so happy that words cannot explain my feeling.” When asked when she would be released, she replied, “I’d like to extend my stay in the camp, as it allows me something to reflect my thought.”
Once freed, Kritsuda later disclosed that she had been coerced into entering a contract with the military to not involveherself in red-shirt affairs again. Failing to do so, she said, would jeopardize herlife and that of her boyfriend.
Finally, she and her boyfriend were released and fled the country .“I could never live in Thailand again and be forced to remain silent,” she said. “I want to come out, telling the truth and continue to work for the red shirts,”, she said. Shealso has been invited by leading international organizations including the United Nations to debrief them on the real situation on human rights in Thailand.
Her latest interview has gone viral on the Internet, causing great anger and frustration among the red shirts and also critics of the coup. Many felt sympathetic towards Kritsuda and admired her courage.
Less than 24 hours after her interview was released, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)the governing body of the coup makers—blocked Kritsuda’s interview in one of the biggest Internet battles in the post-coup period.
Swiftly, the junta’s spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree defended the NCPO by saying that there was no reason for physical and mental abuse against Kritsuda, denying allegations of torture although he begged the public to allow sometime for the military to investigate the case.
More than two months after the coup, as Kritsuda’s treatment demonstrates, the human rights situation in Thailand has not improved. In any case, it has got worse in the face of “soft international sanctions” against the NCPO.
The media and academics are still harassed, with my case as a clear example. Additionally, the military recently announced that it would dispatch thousands of soldiers to the far-flung north and northeast regions in order to “adjust” the attitude of some people. Many fear that it could lead to “quiet yet dreadful” crackdowns against the red shirts.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. He refused to turn himself in to the junta as ordered and has since lost his passport. He remains a political exile.