Red or black? Experiencing Thailand's military draft

Lottery for military draft takes place each April. While some step forward willingly, others want it abolished.

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    A young man in Bangkok reacts after picking a red ballot paper in Thailand's annual lottery for military conscription. [File: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]
    A young man in Bangkok reacts after picking a red ballot paper in Thailand's annual lottery for military conscription. [File: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

    Koh Samui, Thailand - James Campbell was scared the day he took part in Thailand’s lottery for the military draft.

    It was sweltering as he waited with scores of other young men in 2016 to have his weight and measurements recorded by stern-faced soldiers.

    “I'm not going to lie and say that I wasn't scared," Campbell, 24, who has a British father, told Al Jazeera.

    “I remember that morning vividly. I was scared.”

    Campbell was surprised to receive a letter in the mail telling him to attend the draft. He had to mentally prepare himself as his "entire life could change".

    “I also thought about my family. My parents are getting old, and I feel that I need to look out for them.”

    Under Thailand’s 1954 Military Service Act, when men reach the age of 21, they become eligible for conscription.

    If they don't volunteer, they must participate in a lottery that takes place each April.

    Every year, about 100,000 personnel are recruited. Their fate rests on the choice of a card: black for exemption, red for mandatory enlistment.

    Sarayut Chumchai, a 22-year-old glass and mirror technician, went through the lottery for military service in 2018 and was relieved to draw a black card that exempted him. [Caleb Quinley/Al Jazeera]

    Red card

    But reports of the abuse of young conscripts have caused outrage among Thais.

    Human rights groups have documented cases of young men allegedly killed by their peers or senior officers through brutal hazing ritualscorporal punishment and even torture.

    Conscription was a key issue at last month's elections. Three parties talked openly about abandoning the draft.

    Future Forward, the party that energised the youth vote and came third, said it wanted to end the draft and reform the military. Pheu Thai, which won the most seats and is linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was deposed in a 2006 coup, also talked of ending conscription.

    Even the Democrats, the country’s oldest party, hinted it would support gradual steps towards a fully professional military.

    Some Thais have found ways to escape the draft and the tension that accompanies the lottery.

    Reports of bribery are common although the military says it is cracking down on corruption and those found guilty of trying to avoid the draft risk up to three years in jail.

    Some even enrol in Reserve Officer Training programmes for three years in high school. If they have a university degree, they join voluntarily to reduce the commitment from two years to six months.

    But not everyone wants to avoid joining. In rural locations, some young men welcome the opportunity. 

    Ek, a 26-year-old motorcycle mechanic from Thailand’s Koh Samui island, said volunteering made sense because he "didn’t have a lot going on for me at the time".

    "I was able to receive a monthly wage in the navy, and I didn’t mind the work.” 

    He said that while some of his friends were unhappy after they were sent to the three southern provinces, where a low-level rebellion has been under way since 2004, he had no problems.

    Another potential recruit, Sarayut Chumchai, a 22-year-old glass and mirror technician recalled the anxiety of lottery day.

    “I really didn’t want to pull a red card,” he said.  “It was stressful. Everyone sat quietly waiting for our turn then the officer says your name and you wait to see. I got lucky and got the black card.”

    “I think the military can be good for the country,” he said, declining to say whether he thought the draft was necessary.

    Ek, a 26-year-old motorcycle mechanic from Koh Samui, decided to sign up for the military because it meant a regular monthly wage. [Caleb Quinley/Al Jazeera] 

    'Be a man'

    Thailand’s military, says conscription is necessary to instil discipline and ensure respect towards the triple pillars of Thai identity: nation, religion, and monarchy.

    The constitution describes military service as a "national duty".

    “Since the end of the Cold War, there has been no military justification for mandatory military service in Thailand, nor do conscripts perform any urgent social role,” John Draper, director of the Social Survey Centre at Khon Kaen University, and a researcher on Thailand’s military explained.

    “Thailand's military draft should be abolished as it supports a feudal, bloated military system with some of the highest general-to-soldier ratios in the world.”

    Draper thinks the government should instead develop the conscription lottery into a national service programme that would engage in rural development, such as building and renovating school buildings in remote areas and operating programmes that could ultimately help poorer people and the economy.

    “It would lead to a better Thailand by developing a population that saw real benefit for their country from performing national service and avoid the perpetuation of a system that, at heart, relies on maintaining a 'culture of killing', one emphasising maleness, the brutalising of its men, and in many tragic cases, the disabling or even killing of conscripts as part of the regime of 'discipline and punishment',” said Draper.

    Campbell also recalled hearing about the reports of mistreatment. But he said he would never allow such abuse to happen to him.

    “I’m the type of person who, if you hit me, I'll hit back,” he said. “I'll always push back against unfair treatment.”

    When the lottery letter arrived, he thought of volunteering because he was enrolled in university, but his mother told him to "be a man" and take his chances with the lottery. 

    As he stood in line at the recruitment centre, Campbell was nervous. But as he saw a black mark on the card he picked, he was hit with a wave of relief.

    “I’m glad I didn’t volunteer. I pulled a black card so it paid off in the end,” he said.

    Thailand: the military and the media

    The Listening Post

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News