Duty or obstacle? _ a look at conscription and national service
A personnel shortfall may lead the army to close some of the exemptions to the military draft. 'Spectrum' speaks to some who found expensive or creative ways to escape military service, some who felt they wasted their time and others who returned refreshed, fit and disciplined for the life ahead
Last month, army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha made a shocking announcement - especially for males under 21 who had never been conscripted - that those who had attended Ror Dor military school might no longer be exempt from national service.
SHORN AND SHAPED: New conscripts get their hair cut prior to training. Many of the recruits are from parts of the deep South judged to have a high level of separatist infiltration. They will be taught politics and history to boost their patriotism.
Before April every year, Thailand's armed forces launch a search for healthy men aged between 21 and 30. The draft consists of drawing a numbered card bearing either a red or black stamp from a box at a municipal district office or at designated schools or temples upcountry.
The Ror Dor, or Reserve Officer Training Corp, acts as a reserve force for the military in times of war or crisis, and has been a way for school-age boys to learn military training and also to earn exemptions from the military draft upon turning 21.
Now that this may no longer be a way out of national service, Spectrum spoke to several men about their experiences _ those who tried their luck in the military draft, some who ran away from camp and others who paid their way out of it.
THE LOTTERY LOSER
Tiwa is a 25 year old who tried out his luck in 2009, drawing a card from the box. He pulled out a red card, which meant he had to join the army. Many men are scared of joining the army, but Tiwa went in with a positive attitude and came out with a better experience than he'd expected.
"I was in my junior year at university in Bangkok when I got a letter from the military saying I had to enter the annual military draft. Friends who got the same letter were scared and didn't want to join the army. Personally, I thought there was nothing wrong with it. If I got the black card, it would be great. If I got the red card, it would be good, too.
FIGHTING FIT?: Young men undergo health examination at a military conscription unit, top. Above, a transexual joins a military conscription queue,
"I went to the Bang Na district office to draw a card and I got the red one. I went in April 2009, but I didn't have to go to the camp until November because I was assigned to a military camp in Bangkok for the second shift. Once I received my notice, I withdrew from university. I didn't think I had a choice _ otherwise it would affect me for the rest of my life.
"The first day was orientation day. The senior military men explained the rules to us, what we have to do there, what documents we would get after completing two years of service, and what we would be paid. It surprised me to find out we all earned 9,000 baht a month. The military takes 500 baht a month out of that and saves it in a bank for us. When we're discharged, we each get 12,000 baht back plus whatever we can save during that period.
"After that first day, we trained heavily for 10 weeks. Training sessions mostly dealt with combat techniques, use of weapons and discipline. After 10 weeks, we were permitted to go home for 10 days. When we came back, the senior officers assigned us to different departments to help with their work, depending on each person's skills. Some who had electrical skills were assigned to work as electricians. I was assigned to help the senior officers in the administration office, doing computer and simple secretarial work.
"Around 20% of us were picked by the seniors to help with their housework. Whenever I asked, they seemed quite happy about it. Some of my friends said the tasks were basic and easy, such as cleaning floors, watering plants, washing cloths and dishes.
"After completing the two years, I left camp with a Sor Dor 8 document stating I had already served my time in the military. I could then use the document to apply for a job. I didn't expect much from military service, but what I got out of it was quite valuable. I became more punctual and am more disciplined overall. It was the right thing for me to do."
Jack, a 31-year-old researcher, decided not to try his luck but applied directly to the military. Those who opt for the lottery face two years if they draw the red card; those who volunteer directly serve six months.
"I originally came from the South of Thailand and I'm still registered there. So I chose to apply to join the navy. Even though there are many navy bases in the South, we were sent to the big naval base in Sattahip with 2,000 others from all over the country to receive training for two months.
"At first I was a bit scared, but I felt much better once I realised it wasn't hard at all. It almost felt like we were back at school again. After the training period, I was sent to a navy base in Bangkok where I spent another four months, helping with office work and some research.
"I have to admit that I didn't learn much from being in the navy for six months. The only thing I got was discipline, which only lasted for a couple of months. But overall, it was a great opportunity for me to meet and interact with people from many different backgrounds."
Ton, 38, also chose to join the army directly rather than trying out his luck. He too only served six months.
"I joined the army for the first shift around May 1998 in a camp in Bangkok. I applied for the army while I was still at college because I only had to serve six months instead of the two full years for those who go through the regular draft.
"Before I had to go to the camp, I was quite anxious. I knew life there wouldn't be the same as on the outside. On the first day, we all had to cut our hair very short. Then we were told what to do. The following day was the first actual training day.
"We were woken up around 5am. The programme started with morning exercises and running three kilometres and ended with military style exercises until 7am. We were all exhausted and felt like we were going to die. Then we did regular training all day and then the same exercises as in the morning from 4-6pm every day.
"At first I couldn't understand why we had to do the same thing twice a day every day, but I realised we were preparing for a battle of physical strength. Each of us were required to do 45 push-ups, 50 sit-ups, 30 pull-ups and an eight-kilometre run in order to pass the test.
''Heavy training lasted only three months before I was assigned to do some housework for senior officers or help with day-to-day tasks within the camp. For me, this was a rare opportunity to get closer to high-ranking officers. I didn't mind doing it at all. If we weren't happy with the assigned tasks, we could ask to be transferred to do something else instead.''
Ton admitted that many people ran away from camp during and after the training period. Some of them returned, while some just disappeared forever.
''Some of my friends ran away from the camp for many reasons. They had family to take care of, and some of them just couldn't handle the military system. People who ran away and came back sometimes served time in military prison. If they had a good excuse, they wouldn't be sent to jail.''
Spectrum spoke to one man from Chiang Mai who ran away from military camp. He asked that his name be withheld.
THEY’RE IN THE ARMY NOW: New conscripts are taught everything from how to kill, to basic personal hygiene.
''I ran away last year after the training session was over. I had asked the senior trainer if I could return home once because I had a six-month old daughter to take care of. When I arrived home, though, I realised how much I missed my family and how they were struggling without me.
I went back to camp until I realised that I couldn't stand it any more. So I decided to escape. I jumped over the wall and ran directly to the main road. There I managed to find a songthaew [hired truck] to take me home.
''I stayed home for a couple of months until the military men found me and asked me to go back to complete my two years of service. I was too worried about my family. My parents and wife, though, wanted me to go back because we were very poor _ at least I could earn close to 9,000 baht a month in the army.
''So I decided to go back and I was given permission to come home from time to time to take care of my baby girl. Fortunately the trainers understood my situation.''
THE ARTFUL DODGERS
While some choose to run away from military service, others pay their way out of joining the army.
Song, a 36-year-old from a wealthy family, told Spectrum that he saw no point in wasting his time.
''I got a letter from the military saying I had to participate in the draft and might have to join the army for two years, and I was quite scared. Fortunately, my parents already had a plan.
''Before the actual date, my father went to the district office, where he talked to the district's registrar. He paid him around 15,000 baht on the condition that no matter what colour card I drew, I wouldn't have to join the army.
''When the actual date arrived, I went and drew the card from the box, which turned out to be black. I felt relief and I got the Sor Dor 43 document saying I was exempted from the army. I was happy that I could continue doing my job.''
Oak, a 22 year old originally from Chiang Rai, also didn't want to join the army.
Even though his family was poor, he managed to find the money to pay his way out of service.
''I was called by the military to draw the card back at home in Chiang Rai. I was working in Chiang Mai at the time and didn't want to join the army. I wasn't prepared since I thought there would be many people applying and they wouldn't need me.
''I almost passed out when I saw the colour of the card I picked - it was red. I didn't know what to do, so I called my father and asked him to sell everything he had to get the money to pay my way out. The officer told me that if I wanted to get out of it, I would have to pay 30,000 baht. Then he could issue me the Sor Dor 43 document.
''I managed to get that amount together and was quite happy that I didn't have to join the army.''
SERVED WITH HONOUR: Soldiers receive certificates from army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha at the Thai Army Club after completing their conscription.
YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU
''Each year, we need approximately 80,000 to 90,000 new recruits for the army. The exact number is determined according to the budget we receive for the year,'' Lt Gen Wichit Sriprasert, commander of the territorial defence force, explained to Spectrum.
''Compared to the other branches of the armed forces, the army takes most of the conscripts. The navy, air force and the Defence Ministry don't need as many people as we do.''
To help keep numbers up, Lt Gen Wichit plans to improve recruitment strategy, and to make military service more appealing to the public.
''I try to think how we can change the perceptions of people who think being conscripted is the end of the world. We plan carefully each year to make sure that the training is not too hard for new conscripts to handle. There's 10 weeks of field training, and we offer career advice and training, as well as a 9,000 baht salary for those who join the military for two years.''
Lt Gen Wichit doesn't recommend anyone miss the conscription lottery or abscond from camp once selected.
''I'd like to ask people to attend the conscription lottery no matter what their circumstances. If you are transgender, you can come and sign off _ we wouldn't want you in the military when your body and mind are not ready. We have already changed the term for such cases to 'sexual identity does not match sexual preference'.
''Those who are ill or have some physical challenges that make them unable to join the military should attend one of the seven military hospitals located throughout Thailand for a check-up and bring the results to us. We will be happy to exempt you.
''For those who plan to desert, I recommend you don't do it, since no one can get away with it. If you try to avoid conscription, you won't be able to leave the country or renew your ID card because we will send the information to all district offices, police stations and immigration offices.
''If you contact any of these places, they will know you are wanted by the military. And after appearing in court, and possibly going to prison, you will still have to serve your two years in the military.
''In the near future, we would like to develop a system to put information in ID card chips to make it easier to keep track of people.
''For those who desert, we normally don't do anything for people who are missing for less than 15 days. But after 15 days, we find them and ask them why they deserted. If they have a good reason, such as needing to take care of their family, we wouldn't do anything but ask them not to do it again.''
Spectrum asked Lt Gen Wichit about conscripts who are forced to do manual labour or housework for their superiors. He said such had happened in the past, but not these days.
''I have to admit that there was a 'personal soldier' system in the past that allowed high-ranking officers to use new conscripts to do their housework. But that no longer happens. Conscripts are now only required to keep public areas clean, such as their own bathrooms or bedrooms.''
But Lt Gen Wichit said there was more to military service than cleaning and training.
''Each military camp in Thailand has to send some new conscripts to the red zone of the southern border provinces. I think these people deserve respect from the military.
''National army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha used to say that we take people's healthy sons and put them in a risky situation ... and that we have to do everything to make sure that we return them in the same condition they arrived.
''I would like to let everyone know that military service is not as bad as people think. People who have been through conscription all say they get much more out of it than they expected, and I agree with that.''
at Protpittayapayat School in Bangkok’s Lat Krabang district.
About the author
- Writer: Chaiyot Yongcharoenchai