Beware the black ribbon

Inside King Vajiralongkorn’s dreaded military punishment camp

Hi all, welcome to another extra edition of Secret Siam, on King Vajiralongkorn’s punishment regime and what happens at the notorious Thaweewattana Palace compound. It’s based on work I began in 2017 but this version has been updated with additional information I’ve uncovered since then. The article is free for everyone to read but if you find Secret Siam useful, please consider paying for a subscription so you can access all newsletters and archives.

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Drama at the funeral

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 ceremonial uniform includes red 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 with sweat.

The funeral was broadcast on every Thai television channel. Hundreds of thousands came to Bangkok to witness the rituals, and millions more 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.

Watching what was happening, the royals could be seen reacting with alarm when the officer collapsed.

It’s not 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 Vajiralongkorn’s attention due to even small mistakes. They know they face punishment at a military boot camp at the king’s Thaweewattana Palace west 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 man who fainted at the funeral was Commander Kritanai Pantabutr, a naval officer in the Royal Aide-De-Camp Department. He was given three black ribbons by a furious Vajiralongkorn, military sources say. He spent nine months in the king’s punishment camp, and was also demoted to become an ordinary soldier in Vajiralongkorn’s personal Royal Guard 904 military force.

Sources say one reason for Vajiralongkorn’s wrath is that Kritanai was carrying one of the most important royals flags at the ceremony — the yellow royal battle flag with an image of a garuda. The extremely superstitious monarch believed it was a bad omen for the royal battle flag to fall to the ground.

Training and brainwashing

Vajiralongkorn has several palaces in and around Bangkok. Thaweewattana was where he lived with his third wife, Srirasmi Suwadee, a former nightclub hostess who he secretly married in 2001. Two vintage planes, including a 1940s 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.

After 2007, Vajiralongkorn started spending most of his time in 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.

Vajiralongkorn turned the palace into a training camp for soldiers who wanted to join the elite Royal Guard 904 force he was creating under his direct command. Whatever their rank or seniority, soldiers and officers who wish to join the force have to do at least three months of gruelling training at Thaweewattana, which involves intensive daily physical exercise and also political indoctrination. They stay in barracks at the palace during the training and are not supposed to contact their families.

Satellite images show the evolution of the complex from 2002 when it was just empty fields, through the years in which it was landscaped to create ornamental lakes around newly constructed palace buildings, to the present when several military barracks buildings have been added.

Soldiers who complete the rigorous course at Thaweewattana get the right to wear their red-rimmed training T-shirts as part of their uniform, and are nicknamed “ทหารขอบแดง” or “red-rim soldiers”. As Paul Chambers, an expert on the Thai military, observes: “Passing the programme makes them much more competitive candidates for the topmost army and armed forces postings”.

General Apirat Kongsompong did the training in 2018 before becoming army chief, and his successor General Narongpan Jittkaewtae has also gone through the programme at Thaweewattana.

In 2019, Vajiralongkorn ordered all the military top brass from the army, navy and air force to attend two weeks of special training at Thaweewattana, regardless of their age. Some of the more elderly officers, who declined to attend the training because of their health, were stripped of the “วปร” medal on their shoulder which is associated with Royal Guard membership.

Some soldiers and police volunteer for the Royal Guard forces — it’s a fast way to rise up the ranks — but many don’t have a choice. They are ordered to join, and if they refuse, they face severe punishment. For example, as I reported in 2019, police chief Chakthip Chaijinda ordered 873 police officers to go for six months of training at Thaweewattana from October 1, 2019, to March 31, 2020, for induction into the Ratchawallop Police Retainers of the Royal Guard 904. On 1 October at 07:00 a.m., all 873 showed up at Thaweewattana as instructed, but 100 of them said they were not ready to receive the training. Many had family commitments and did not want to be away from home for six months. As punishment, they were told to report to the Police Club on Vibhavadi Road on October 7, 2019, at 10:00 am, to be transported by three police buses to the airport where they were flown to Yala for punishment training in the Deep South, a region plagued with a violent separatist Malay Muslim insurgency against Bangkok rule. (This incident was also recently discussed by Rangsiman Rome in his revelations about palace interference in the police.)

Those who have had to go through training at Thaweewattana say conditions are harsh, with recruits often beaten or caned by their instructors if they are accused of doing something wrong. One police recruit, who was heartbroken about having to leave his wife and child for six months, shared some of the rules that trainees have to follow. One rule states that if civilian clothes are found in their locker, they will be caned seven times.

But for those sent to Thaweewattana for punishment, the conditions are even worse.

Beatings and abuse

Training alongside those being recruited for the Royal Guard 904 at Thaweewattana are those who have been sent there because they angered the king or one of his henchmen and received a “black ribbon” punishment.

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 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”.

Testimony from soldiers who have spent time in the camp reveals a brutal regime for those being disciplined.

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 am when camp inmates are awoken, and they are expected to be ready to begin the day’s activities by 5:00 am. They are required to do an hour of physical training before breakfast, and then must assemble in uniform for individual inspection at 7:00 am.

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 with the other Royal Guard 904 recruits. 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 usually 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 film 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 that previously was used to house chickens, known as the “chicken shit barracks”. The ceiling is 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 are 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.

Death of an officer

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.

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 with the recruits seeking to join the Royal Guard 904

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 other trainees to say nothing about the incident.

Kitsanapol’s funeral was held on August 15, 2017, at Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat in Bang Khen. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of colonel on the orders of Vajiralongkorn, who also sent a wreath.

The dark site

Enduring months of punishment and abuse as an inmate of the “chicken shit barracks” is miserable enough, but it’s not the worst place to be at Thaweewattana.

On March 27, 2012, Thailand’s Justice Department approved the construction of a jail within the 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 and without any oversight at all.

In 2015, three members of Vajiralongkorn’s inner circle — his former chief bodyguard Major General Pisitsak 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 their 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.

The corpses of all three men were quickly cremated without an autopsy.

Soldiers at the punishment camp, and those doing training for the Royal Guard, have no contact with the inmates of the prison. The building is referred to as “the dark site” by those who work in the complex.

It remains unknown how many people are held in the prison at Thaweewattana. 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.

The government led by Prayut Chan-ocha and his sidekick Prawit Wongsuwan have also never commented on what happens at Thaweewattana, and have done nothing to try to control Vajiralongkorn and stop his murderous behaviour. As Paul Handley wrote in a recent article on developments since he published The King Never Smiles in 2006:

Having been accepted by the Thai elite as the guarantors of succession, the junta members have not fulfilled the second part of their mandate, keeping the new king in check and preventing or minimising his abuse of power. Instead, they are complicit.

One of the main sources of this article was somebody with extensive knowledge of what happens at Thaweewattana, who had become disillusioned by Vajiralongkorn’s violence and cruelty and supported reform of the monarchy. He was trying to organise opposition to Vajiralongkorn within the armed forces, but the king’s security team eventually managed to track him down after monitoring his online activity. Aware he had been exposed, he tried to flee. He contacted me during his attempted escape, and we spoke several times about the danger he faced, but then he went silent, and I never heard from him again. One of the last things he said to me was a Facebook message:

“I dont wanna die in Tawi”