Inside King Vajiralongkorn’s dreaded military punishment camp
Under a merciless sun, hundreds of soldiers and palace servants stood stiffly to attention, waiting for King Rama X of Thailand, Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun to emerge for another ritual in the five-day funeral ceremony for his father.
It was the climactic day of the funeral rites — October 26, 2017 — when a gilded royal urn symbolising the remains of King Rama IX, Bhumibol Adulyadej, would be slowly pulled through the streets of Bangkok’s royal district on an ornate chariot to the vast crematorium complex where his body would be burned on a soaring pyre.
The funeral ceremonies were particularly punishing for soldiers in the Royal Guard, whose dress uniform includes red wool jackets buttoned tightly right up to the neck, and towering furry hats modelled on the bearskin helmets used by some European armies centuries ago. This uniform is totally impractical for the tropical heat of Thailand, but in the 19th century King Rama V, Chulalongkorn, sought to protect his monarchy against encroaching colonial powers by copying some of the uniforms, ceremonies and customs of Western royal houses.
Vajiralongkorn himself wore the full uniform during some of the funeral ceremonies, and was photographed dripping in sweat.
The funeral ceremonies were broadcast on every Thai television channel. Hundreds of thousands came to Bangkok to witness the rituals, and millions tuned in around the country to watch. Everything had been painstakingly planned and choreographed, and three full dress rehearsals had been held. The palace wanted everything to be perfect.
But one royal guard officer was overcome by the heat. Thais watching the live broadcast saw him suddenly topple to the ground. Officials raced to help him, and lifted him back on his feet. He continued to sway, apparently still lightheaded, but managed to recover and continue with the ceremony.
It’s far from uncommon for troops to faint in such circumstances — in Britain, for example, five soldiers in the Queen’s Guard fainted at the Trooping the Colour ceremony at Buckingham Palace in June 2017. Officials blamed unusually warm weather, but even in a heatwave London is much cooler and less humid than baking Bangkok.
Vajiralongkorn, however, demands perfection from Thai soldiers. He has a fetishistic obsession with ensuring their uniforms are exactly right, that they follow drills and ceremonies without a single error, and that they are in peak physical condition.
Thai soldiers have learned to dread ever coming to the Vajiralongkorn’s attention due to even small mistakes. They know they face punishment at a military boot camp at the king’s Thaweewattana Palace north of Bangkok.
Vajiralongkorn personally decides the length of punishment, based on a system of “black ribbons”, or “โบว์ดำ” in Thai:
- One black ribbon: one month.
- Two black ribbons: three months.
- Three black ribbons: nine months.
The King’s Guard officer who fainted at the funeral was given three black ribbons by a furious Vajiralongkorn, military sources say. He faces 90 days in the king’s dreaded punishment camp.
Vajiralongkorn has several palaces in and around Bangkok. Thaweewattana was where he spent time with his third wife, Srirasmi Suwadee, a former nightclub hostess who he secretly married in 2001. But from 2007 onwards he started spending most of his time in Munich, Germany, with former Thai Airways flight attendant Suthida Tidjai, and in 2014 he divorced Srirasmi, stripped her of her royal rank, and banished her from Thaweewattana. In a further act of cruelty, he jailed most of her close relatives, including her elderly parents and three brothers who had formerly worked as his bodyguards. The palace is now mainly used as a prison and military punishment camp.
On March 27, 2012, Thailand’s Justice Department approved the construction of a jail within the Thaweewattana Palace complex. It is known as Buddha Monthon Temporary Prison. Officially it is under the authority of Klong Prem Central Prison, but in fact it is a place where Vajiralongkorn can incarcerate and punish anyone who displeases him with impunity without any oversight at all.
According to research by exiled academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a crematorium has also been built inside the Thaweewattana complex adjacent to the jail.
In 2015, three members of Vajiralongkorn’s inner circle — his former chief bodyguard Pisitsak “Jack” Seniwong na Ayutthaya, celebrity fortune teller Suriyan Sucharitpolwong aka Mor Yong, and police Major Prakrom Warunprapa — died suddenly after being accused of corruption in royal projects overseen by Vajiralongkorn. Before the death their heads were shaved and they were imprisoned at the secret jail at Thaweewattana. The authorities claimed that Prakrom committed suicide in custody and that Mor Yong died of a “blood infection”. Pisitsak’s death was never officially announced but his family was told that he, too, had hanged himself.
In fact, all three were killed, and their corpses quickly cremated without an autopsy.
It remains unknown how many people are held in the prison at Thaweewattana. Pavin says it is described by some of those who have been imprisoned there as “hell on earth”. It is forbidden to visit the jail, and Thai human rights groups and media have said nothing about it, due to fear of the draconian lèse majesté law that criminalises discussion of abuses of power by the royal family.
Besides the prison, the Thaweewattana Palace complex also includes a training camp for young cadets in the Rachawallop Infantry Unit 904, a military force under Vajiralongkorn’s command. Two vintage planes, including a 194os Douglas C-47, are parked in the palace grounds. They were previously on display at the Royal Thai Air Force Museum at Don Muang before Vajiralongkorn demanded them for himself in 2007.
In recent years a military punishment camp has been established in the complex also. This punishment camp — separate from the prison — is where soldiers get sent if they displease Vajiralongkorn and are given black ribbons.
Testimony from soldiers who have spent time in the camp reveals a brutal regime.
On the day soldiers arrive at the camp, they are each put into a sack and then kicked and beaten by the “instructors” in charge of the punishment programme.
Then the routine begins. Each day starts at 4:45 a.m. when camp inmates are awoken, and they are expected to be ready to begin the day’s activities by 5:00 a.m. They are required to do an hour of physical training before breakfast, and then must assemble in uniform for individual inspection at 7:00 a.m.
Whatever their rank, officers at the camp are bullied and abused like raw recruits, and disciplined for the slightest imperfection in their uniform or any mistake in the drills they are forced to do. Punishments for infractions can last for hours, and include having to crawl through sewage pipes, having to carry heavy logs past the point of exhaustion, and being subjected to beatings by instructors with sticks, fists and boots.
Once each inmate has had their daily punishment, the rest of the day involves intensive physical training. There are one-hour breaks for lunch and dinner, but otherwise only five minutes rest per hour is allowed. Training goes on well into the evening, and inmates then have to prepare their uniforms and polish their boots for the following day when their ordeal begins all over again.
Because of Vajiralongkorn’s obsession with physical fitness, overweight soldiers face particular hardship at the Thaweewattana punishment camp. Their food is restricted, and some inmates are allowed only one meal a day. They are not allowed to drink any water, except at mealtimes, and they are not permitted to rest in the shade during their five-minute breaks in training. Sometimes they are forced to train wearing heavy coats, to make them sweat even more, which the instructors apparently believe will speed weight loss. Some inmates have come close to suffering kidney failure as a result of this treatment.
Inmates are forbidden from having any contact with their family while at the punishment camp. In some cases, their families have no idea of their whereabouts for weeks or months.
Instructors at the camp video the daily punishments of the inmates. The footage is routinely sent to Vajiralongkorn, who apparently enjoys watching video of soldiers being beaten and abused.
At midnight, inmates are allowed to return to the barracks building in the complex for a few hours of sleep. The barracks is a cramped one-storey building with a ceiling so low that inmates have to crawl to their sleeping mats. There is a dirty squat toilet, and a small washing area. Lights in the barracks remain on all night.
Some inmates who have been singled out for special punishment and not permitted to go to bed at midnight — they are kept awake for beatings and abuse well into the night. Some soldiers report that they were ordered to eat worms and drink urine.
The most severe punishment of all is to be sent to the jail in the palace complex, which is known as the “dark prison”. Soldiers in the punishment camp have very little information about what goes on there, and have no contact with prisoners held there.
At least one officer has died during punishment at the Thaweewattana training camp.
Lieutenant Colonel Kitsanapol “Bom” Pochana, commander of the 12th Artillery Battalion, was an extremely popular officer and a proud royalist who often spoke to military cadets and high school students to promote the monarchy.
On June 18, 2017, a taxi driver quarrelled with two soldiers from the battalion in front of Major Cineplex at Rangsit. The incident was shared on social media and reported in some Thai newspapers.
Vajiralongkorn became aware of the incident and ordered Lieutenant Colonel Kitsanapol and the battalion’s S3 officer, Major Thanakit “It” Deesonthikun, to report for punishment at Thaweewattana Palace. The king was apparently angry because he believed the senior officers did not control their soldiers properly and did not ensure the soldiers were correctly dressed.
After arrival at the palace, both officers were initially imprisoned in the palace jail. Their heads were shaved, and they were forced to wear prison uniforms and shackles. They were later transferred to the military punishment camp.
During his detention, Kitsanapol lost around 30 kg in weight. He was subjected to daily humiliations and abuse. He went missing from social media for weeks, with his Facebook page dormant from June 19 to July 10.
On July 10 he posted a song called “The Lesson” on Facebook, with the comment “I would love to leave this song with you”.
By August, his treatment had become less harsh but he was still required to do daily training at Thaweewattana with young cadets seeking to join the King’s Guard and the Rachawallop Infantry Unit.
On the afternoon of August 13, Kitsanapol was ordered to join the cadets in a 2 km run and fitness test, inside the grounds of the palace. He collapsed during this ordeal and suffered cardiac arrest. Instructors attempted CPR but by the time an ambulance arrived, he was pronounced dead. The military instructors at the palace told the cadets to say nothing about the incident.
His funeral was held on August 15 at Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat in Bang Khen. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of colonel on the orders of Vajiralongkorn.
Soldiers can be given black ribbons and sent to the Thaweewattana punishment camp for the most trivial of reasons, depending on the whims and moods of the notoriously volatile Vajiralongkorn.
One senior officer endured three months at the camp after Vajiralongkorn noticed that one of the buttons on his uniform was loose. Another was sent to Thaweewattana and demoted to the rank of private because the king was not happy with his style of saluting. One soldier even ended up at the punishment camp because Vajiralongkorn thought he “looked too Chinese”.
The king’s fetish for perfection in military uniforms contrasts with his peculiar behaviour in Munich where he has been photographed semi-naked several times, often while wearing crop-tops and low-slung jeans, and sporting fake full-body tattoos.
But since childhood, Vajiralongkorn has been a bully who enjoys tormenting others, with an obsession for military drills and clothing, as a fellow pupil at the Millfield boarding school in England reported in an article in The Daily Telegraph last year:
“He wasn’t clever, he wasn’t in any teams and despite a previous sojourn at a prep school … in his English remained imperfect and idiosyncratic. But what marked him most was his enthusiasm for the Combined Cadet Force, a Friday afternoon misery that everyone else loathed. Here, he so excelled in the meticulous wearing of kit, the parade-ground drills, the shouting and saluting that he was promoted to some sort of officer status…
“Like others whose sense of superior status is toxically combined with insecurity and isolation, Mahidol could suddenly drop his pretence of amiable normality and become a vile bully: indeed, his behaviour might now be described as bipolar. His joviality could quickly boil to manic pitch, and the dormitory would often be rudely awoken in the small hours by his sudden melodramatic cackling, as though he had just dreamt up a scheme of bloody revenge and mayhem on those who had crossed him.”
Half a century later, Vajiralongkorn is still the same insecure bully, but now he is king of Thailand, with the power to torment others with impunity. The abuse and torture at Thaweewattana demonstrate how he behaves when he can do whatever he wants.
While he remains on the throne, Thailand is a nation living in fear.