Thailand’s army chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong has promised repeatedly to crack down on abuse, corruption, and exploitation in the military’s ranks. To make good on that pledge, a 24-hour hotline with the slogan “Everything is secret, everything reaches the army chief” was set up.
But the army chief is apparently reneging on his pledge to protect whistleblowers, as soldiers who speak out against wrongdoing have faced vicious retaliation.
Sgt. Narongchai Intharakawi filed several complaints on the hotline in April about alleged corruption involving staff allowances at the Army Ordnance Materiel Rebuild Center, where he worked as a clerk. Not only did he see no action taken on his complaints, he received death threats and faced a disciplinary inquiry for allegedly undermining unity within the army and damaging his unit’s reputation. Leaked video footage from the inquiry showed Sgt. Narongchai’s superior telling him that, “You may be able to get away this time, but there is no next time for you. … Reporting this and that will only get you in trouble.”
Fearing for his safety, Sgt. Narongchai fled his barracks and sought protection from the parliament’s Committee on Legal Affairs, Justice, and Human Rights. He also publicized his plight by sharing information with the media, arguing that other ways of disclosing wrongdoing had proved ineffective. But those steps have not stopped the army from going after him.
While denying allegations about mistreatment of Sgt. Narongchai, the army sought a military court warrant to arrest him for being absent from his duties for more than 15 days. Sgt. Narongchai faces up to seven years in prison and a dishonorable discharge.
Official records show that since the hotline was launched in February 2020, at least 600 army personnel have filed complaints about malfeasance in the army. Will they too end up like Sgt. Narongchai, being hung out to dry without any discernible measures taken to protect them?
Gen. Apirat took a bold step by personally vowing to take charge of efforts to clean up wrongdoing in the barracks. Done properly, this could have been a major part of the army chief’s legacy when he retires later this year. But the army’s internal complaint mechanism is failing and Gen. Apirat’s promises now ring hollow. Gen. Apirat should act now to end the heavy-handed retaliation against whistleblower Sgt. Narongchai.