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How things work in uniform

The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is a bit of military flummery that nominally provides security for the monarch but in reality keeps the tourist dollars flowing.  The sight of humans imitating automatons in ridiculous hats attracts the gawping attention of those in need of regular trivial mental stimulation.

At 6 pm every evening a similar change-over occurs in police stations around the country.  This attracts no attention at all and the mechanics of it are unknown to the general public. 

But perhaps they should be.

The officers going off shift at 6 pm will be back again at 6 pm tomorrow.  Starting a new shift to work through till midnight.

You see, the good lord invented the 24-hour day, but the Royal Thai Police have invented the 30-hour day.  An officer who today is on duty from noon to 6 pm will be working the 6 pm to midnight shift tomorrow, then after 24 hours off, midnight to 6 am, then the next day 6 am to noon and start again. 

The average citizen only becomes aware of this when he files a report at, say 7 pm.  If the next day he needs to contact the officer in charge of the report (and the rules are that no other officer is allowed to interfere), he is asked to come back at any inconvenient time between midnight and 6 am.

Outside of their 6 hours, the officers may have to appear in court, write up case files, maybe even do some investigating.  And at some point, sleep.  Or try to.

And there’s a problem.  The planet turns every 24 hours, give or take the odd micro-second, and over the years the human body has adapted to it, as have animals, insects, even plants.  We are programmed for about 8 hour’s kip while it’s dark and 16 hours awake in the light.  Muck about with this and you make trouble for yourself. 

There is a copious medical literature on the effect of night shift on workers, who are still on a 24-hour cycle, but the wrong way round, so to speak.  There is an increased risk of diabetes, cancers, heart disease, obesity, poor sexual performance and, surprise surprise, insomnia. 

And that’s before we mention the cognitive effects.  Night shift workers make more mistakes, have more accidents, and generally exercise poorer judgement.  I have found no research that says they indulge in more corruption.

All this is exacerbated by the constantly shifting shifts that the police are expected to put in.  Is it any wonder that we get the uncoordinated cock-up on Koh Tao?

But maybe this is one of the things that will go under the junta’s ‘if it moves, reform it’ policy.  Because they, and the rest of the anti-corruption righteous right, are convinced that the police are a major source of evil in the land.  Why, you-know-who used to be one.  What more proof do you need?

Well, yes, there is evidence a-plenty of corrupt practices among the police.  But who exactly is pointing the finger?  If we are going to expose institutionalized stupidity in one branch of the security forces, maybe we should reveal a home truth about the military.

No one I know believes that the military are squeaky clean when it comes to money.  But most of us think that any hanky-panky is of the common-or-garden variety, of taking a cut off stuff, especially when they buy overpriced toys that are missing necessary bits (the aircraft carrier with no aircraft; the submarine pens with no submarines), or are utterly and irretrievably useless (the airship and magic bomb detectors).

But military officers have a scam that only they can indulge in.  I was alerted to this when someone told me of a base which on paper is home to hundreds of soldiers but has bunks for only about 50.  And no, they’re not all sleeping on the floor.

It works like this.  Once basic training is over, it is often hard to find work for all those conscripts.  Many go onto the books as ‘servants’ working in officers’ housing.  Many, many servants.  Dozens per house.  So many that they’d be falling over each other if they were actually there.  But on closer examination, you will probably find that the housekeeping is being done by an illegal Burmese skivvy on a couple of thou a month.

So where are all the servant-soldiers?  Well, along with many others at the tail-end of their compulsory 2 years, they are out in the normal world.  Some are working on the family farm or business, many make money in the informal sector, a few just goof off.  They do whatever they want to do as long as it doesn’t require a civilian ID, which they will not get back until demob. 

Another thing they don’t have is their TMB passbook and ATM card for the account that receives their admittedly pitiful military pay each month.  These are being safeguarded back at base by their officers, who happen to know everyone’s PIN.  In this way, an officer’s salary can be supplemented multiple times by however many conscripts have been given paid (but not to them) furlough for the duration. 

So now think again about those assets declarations by the uniformed members of the NLA.  Rich wives?  Inherited wealth?  Luck on the lottery?  Excuse me while I cough discreetly.


About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).