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The Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the army to pay multi-million baht compensation to the family of a soldier who drowned during a combat training course 7 years ago, affirming a previous ruling that found the drill instructors guilty of gross negligence.

Sanan (left) and the swimming pool used for the training in the 1st Infantry Regiment, King's Guard.

Although the verdict was handed down for a civil – and not criminal – proceeding, it paves the way for criminal prosecution of those responsible for the death of Lt Sanan Thongdeenok, according to an attorney who assisted the family’s effort to secure justice from the Royal Thai Army, which has been blamed for a series of deaths within its ranks as a result of its violent treatment of new recruits. 

“Now that the civil case has concluded, the legal team has discussed pursuing a criminal case as well. The trial will be held by a military court. The lawyers will write to the military tribunal and ask for a trial,” Pornpimol Mukkuntod, a lawyer for the Cross Cultural Foundation, said by phone. “Per procedures, usually they wait for the result of the civil case first.” 

Sanan died in June 2015 while participating in a royal guardsmen training program, an intense course known by its codename UKBT. Prosecutors say drill instructors forced Sanan to swim back and forth in a pool dozens of times without taking any rest until he drowned. 

Pornpimol hailed Tuesday’s verdict as a rare victory in legal fights on behalf of army recruits and cadets who died from alleged mistreatment and violence at the hands of their commanding officers.

“We believe that this case could be a role model that can be used in future,” she said. “The court wrote its verdict in detail about what is considered to be appropriate action and duty of drill instructors and officers in charge. It describes how they must protect and take care of the soldiers.”

Court filings show that shortly before his death, Sanan tried to grab the side of the swimming pool, but a drill instructor kicked his hands away and whipped him with a cable. The soldier then sank to the bottom of the pool and remained there for up to 10 minutes before his body was brought out of the water, testimonies submitted to the court say.

When Sanan’s mother and spouse jointly sued the Royal Thai Army for damages, the military testified that his death was an incident beyond anyone’s control, citing risks inherent in combat training. The claim was shot down by a verdict handed down in 2016. 

The ruling pointed to slashing wounds found on Sanan’s body as proof of the assault just before his death, and argued that drill instructors had the responsibility to know the physical limits of each recruit they trained. 

The incident, the judges concluded, resulted from gross negligence on the part of army officers in charge. The verdict was affirmed by the Appeal Court in 2019 and the Supreme Court on Tuesday. 

Pornpimol said the court awarded Sanan’s family a total of 17 million baht in damages, including interests, to be paid by the Royal Thai Army. She added that the family is looking to pursue separate lawsuits against the individuals responsible for Sanan’s death as well. 

A string of army recruits and cadets have died at the hands of their commanding officers in recent years, a phenomenon critics blame on a culture of brutal punishment and violent hazing endemic in the Royal Thai Army. Families of the victims often face a lengthy court battle to obtain justice, frustrated by delays and secrecy from the military. 

In 2018, military cadet Pakapong Tanyakan died at the armed forces academy, mere days after he wrote in a diary about abuses and physical violence. Although his body was found with bruises, the army’s inquiry said Pakapong fell down eight flights of stairs, and attributed his death to a “sudden heart attack.” 

Some of Pakapong’s organs were also missing when the body was returned to the family. The military later said the organs were preserved for health inquiries, and apologised to the family.

Nine soldiers are also facing manslaughter charges for the death of conscript Wichian Puaksom, who was reportedly beaten to death at his base in Narathiwat province back in 2011.  

Another recruit died in 2017 after he was assaulted by up to eight soldiers; the army agreed to open an investigation into his death after a family member wrote about it online. 

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