BANGKOK: From cordial cups of coffee and football games with soldiers, to blindfolds and black site prisons, Thailand’s junta are employing a range of tactics in their so-called “attitude adjustment” campaign against critics.
Since seizing power last year, the military have summoned hundreds of politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens to attend what they described as attitude adjustment sessions — brief periods of involuntary incarceration that can last up to seven days.
Most are released once they sign documents promising not to repeat their transgressions and many have recalled holding relatively friendly discussions with their interrogators.
The military themselves have described the summons as little more than an “invitation” to have a chat — albeit an invitation that no-one can refuse.
But recent events suggest the junta government of General Prayut Chan-O-Cha is rolling out increasingly harsh interrogation techniques as it stamps down on dissent.
Pravit Rojanaphruk, a columnist and one of the few remaining vocal critics of Thailand’s military rulers in the local media, says any pretence of amity disappeared during his most recent incarceration, describing being blindfolded, driven to a black site prison and facing lengthy, hostile interrogations.
“It wasn’t torture but it was the two worst nights and days in my life,” he told AFP.
Pravit was held incommunicado by the military on Sunday and released late Tuesday, he was told for comments he had made on social media.
It is the second time he has been ordered to attend an attitude adjustment session.
The journalist was previously detained alongside more than 200 others in the immediate aftermath of the coup.
“The first time around was bizarrely palatable, if not even pleasant,” he recalled, describing how recently ousted civilian politicians were able to obtain wine and food from their staff which they shared with other detainees and their captors.
Pravit said he even played football with the officers holding him.
“The first time was a kind of coerced party. But the party is now over,” he said.
Threat of charges
Two former MPs who were ousted in the May 2014 coup were summoned at the same time as Pravit.
For one of them, former energy minister Pichai Naripthaphan, it was the seventh summons he had received.
This one seemed to work. Following his release, also on Tuesday, he published a statement on Facebook saying he would not be giving any interviews.
Junta spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree told reporters at the time that the trio were being held for “presenting information that is not in keeping with the (junta) guidelines promoting peace and order”.
During his most recent military appointment Pravit described being blindfolded by officials wearing black clothes and surgical masks and driven out of Bangkok for 90 minutes to an unknown location.
The temperature, he recalled, was stifling and when he requested periods of fresh air in between interrogations he was blindfolded and only allowed into the corridor outside his cell.
He was released only after signing a new document promising not to lead or participate in any anti-junta activity while officers said he would face criminal charges if he overstepped the mark again.
According to iLaw, a local group that monitors arrest figures, 782 people have been “summoned” by the authorities for attitude adjustment since the coup up until the end of August, a number which includes those who have been summoned multiple times as well as when soldiers pay visits to people’s houses.
“The threat of an attitude adjustment has always been there, but in the last few months it has felt more intense,” said a researcher at iLaw who asked not to be named.
“The harsher methods are to send a message out to the public that the junta will no longer be lenient to its critics like last time,” said Puangthong Pawakapan, a Thai politics expert at Chulalongkorn University, who has also been previously summoned.
“They treated me with respect but still the intimidation at the interrogation room was clear and strong,” she added.
Paul Chambers, director of the Institute of South East Asian Affairs and an expert on Thailand’s generals, said the treatment of Pravit “represents a new trend within the military to move toward more use of fear and intimidation rather than softer tactics”.
Such tactics include a significant increase in lese majeste convictions in the courts — some of which have handed down record-breaking sentences in the last two months — and sedition charges against a group of student pro-democracy protesters.
“It illustrates a regime which has become more desperate about holding on to power and does not bode well for the future of human rights in Thailand,” Chambers added.
The day after he was released Pravit resigned as a columnist with his newspaper The Nation, saying he did not want them to face further pressure.
But the journalist said he felt compelled to speak out about what happened during his incarceration because many others who face the same sessions do not have his platform.
“I’m worried about what happens to ordinary people with no public visibility. They could just be whisked away and treated like me or worse, and we wouldn’t even know,” he said.