BANGKOK: Thai police have accused ten soldiers of beating a 22-year-old army conscript to death in a military prison, as the army races to limit damage from the scandal unfolding during its annual draft.
News of the death on Apr 1 emerged just as the armed forces launched an annual conscription exercise that will see some 100,000 men aged 21 and over enlisted into the military for up two years.
Private Yutthakinun Boonniam, 22, died one day after being taken to hospital from the army prison in the southern province of Surat Thani.
Doctors said he suffered kidney failure after a sustained beating with a hard object.
Images purportedly of the victim and circulated on social media showed his face swollen nearly beyond recognition.
His mother has told local media her son was beaten in the military prison for minor disciplinary offences including oversleeping and missing guard duty.
On Wednesday a military court approved arrest warrants for nine soldiers accused of "a gang assault that resulted in death", Surat Thani's police chief Apichart Boonsrirote told AFP.
A tenth, who is an officer, is also being sought but no arrest warrant was granted since he is not deemed a flight risk.
"Eight are in military custody and will be handed over to police later today," the police chief said.
The death is a public relations disaster for the army as it draws on young conscripts to fill its ranks.
The army chief moved quickly to condemn the death and assured the public of a swift and impartial investigation.
But rights groups say the tragedy is nothing new for a military with a long history of torture and abuse.
"The Thai army faces a chronic inability to end abuses against its conscripts," said Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams, blaming a "culture of impunity".
The watchdog noted that there has been no progress in the prosecution of soldiers allegedly responsible for the death of another private in June 2011.
The military, which has run the country since a 2014 coup, has also repeatedly been accused of extrajudicial killings and the torture of civilians.
The military has vowed to investigate the fatal shooting in March of Chaiyaphum Pasae, a young community campaigner in the north of the country.
But most allegations of army abuse and impunity come from the insurgency-torn "Deep South" of the country, where allegations of killings of unarmed or innocent civilians are rife.
No military personnel have ever been brought to justice over abuses in the southern conflict.
By law all Thai men who do not volunteer for military service must attend a draft lottery at least once after they turn 21. There are exemptions for students.