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The Duty of the Thai Man: My Trip to Postpone Military Service

Saturday, 7 April 2018
9.30 pm, Huay Nam Sai village, Phatthalung province

I traveled to Phatthalung this evening. Whenever there are long holidays stretched over several days, I go home to visit my parents. But this trip was to postpone my military service, not for the Songkran [Buddhist New Year] holiday. 

Anyone who has followed my expression of views about military conscription knows that I closely follow ongoing resistance to conscription. This is not because I am still in the period of active postponement of military service and wish to avoid inconvenience or because I fear military conscription. But it is the persistence of a question that I have had since I was younger: why do we conscript soldiers? In search of an answer, I read military history, political philosophy, cultural students and literature. What I discovered is that Thailand does not need a military draft and should switch to a volunteer system. I will save explication of the reasons and details for another time. 

On the way from the Nakhon Sri Thammarat airport to Phatthalung, I thought about the abolishment or changes to the military conscription systems in France, Australia, Germany, England and Italy. The transformations in these countries gives me hope that there is a chance that young people here may be able to succeed in our resistance to military conscription, even if we must try very hard. 

Personally, my favorite is the case of Spain. In 2002, military conscription was ended and a volunteer system put in place after more than two centuries of conscription that began during the reign of King Carlos in the eighteenth century. The reasons, which inspire respect, were that the Spanish Army wished to increase its capacity and become a truly professional army. This kind of thinking is absent from the mindset of the soldiers in the Thai Army. 

The refusal to serve in the military on the basis of one’s conscience (conscientious objector) has been the basis for opposition and the call to end military conscription in many countries around the world. There are conscientious objectors in Thailand, including Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal. During this past year’s book fair, he launched a new book entitled Thailand Has Changed, The Draft Must Change. The tagline on the front cover states that, “I can love my country without having to be drafted.”

Serious and committed opposition to military conscription began many years prior to the 2014 coup. Lively debates were held in public and on television between those whose opposed military conscription and those who supported it. The changing times and changing lifestyles have increased interest but also resulted in the internet becoming the primary site of debate and expression. Although the online world can be powerful, we need diverse kinds of strength to oppose military conscription and build a better society. 

Netiwit simultaneously uses both online and offline tools to take action against conscription very effectively.  He also faces an unrelenting stream of attacks in response to his activism. This indicates the insecurity of the thin-skinned Thai Army with respect to this issue.  Those in the Army itself, who are smart and good-intentioned, are aware that military conscription neither makes it better nor increases its capacity. All it can do is prove and demonstrate that the Army is able to control young people through fear.

I have not yet discussed the corruption present inside the Army that results from the alchemy of the rite of military conscription itself. This corruption comes close to topping the list of the rotten attributes of the Army. The best solution is to abolish military conscription. I believe that it is possible to dispense with many of the problems that result from the rite of military conscription. But tonight I am going to sleep. Tomorrow I must wake at dawn to go postpone my military service. 

Sunday, 8 April 2018
6.25 am, In the truck on the way to the district office

“Pay back the nation. Don’t skip conscription.”

This message was written across the opaque white plastic folder that held my documents for postponement. I flipped the documents this way and that to find out what I needed before I raced to hop into the truck that my older brother had already started. Our home is about 15 kilometers from the district office and so we had a fair amount of time to chat on the drive there. 

My brother picked me up at the Nakhon Sri Thammarat airport the day before and we talked about a good friend of mine also studying at Chiang Mai University. He met my older brother last year when he visited our family and so there was nothing unusual about my brother asking about him. What was unusual is that I have recently followed his taking up of the strategy of what is called “purchasing a disease.” On the way home, I told my brother that this friend submitted the request to postpone his military service late and so had to go home for the selection process this year. 

We talked more about this friend as my brother drove me to the district office to postpone my military service. 
His father is a mayor in a municipality in Nakhon Sawan province and is enormously respected by the people. My friend told me that his family went to great lengths to spare him from military conscription. His story made me very excited. Although I had heard about such efforts, a close friend being involved drew me in and I could not resist thinking about it. Fascinating, thrilling, and shame-filled: all at once. 
I asked him once what he thought about military conscription. He answered unwavering by asking, 

“…Do we still live in a time in which we must serve the nation with our strength, labor, and violence? Is it true that our nation lacks personnel to protect the nation? If serving the ‘nation’ means serving society and  serving the common good, is there no better way to do so than this? If serving the ‘nation’ means serving the institution and power of the military, or the interests of those in some groups, then my refusal is instant. During the process of selection, I felt utterly depressed and cried in secret many times. Military conscription is not something one should be forced into. It is the violation of one’s opportunities, time, and humanity. There should be a way for us to get more out of life …”

I further pressed him and asked why did you choose to “throw money” [at the problem] to get out of military conscription?
He answered that, “…This is what my family was able to do to free me from the snare and the accompanying risk. I felt thwarted, frustrated. I felt especially frustrated with the situation on the day of the actual selection. I am sympathetic to those who did not have the choice that I had and I know that what we did was cheating. But if you ask me to choose on the basis of risk. I could not withstand it if I had to risk being a soldier. I would feel even more uneasy than this…” He still has my respect because he is aware that the military conscription system forced him into this choice. His family paid 55,000 baht and he received “blepharoptosis” in return. 

“Has a physical abnormality” was written on the selection card. 

I arrived at the district office at the same time as a military policeman called for people to line up to pledge allegiance to the national flag. I ran and rushed to get in line immediately. One must line up behind the sign for one’s sub-district. This district has four sub-districts. There were five lines in total, because there was an additional line for “postponement.” I raced to get into that line. Officers stood abreast and the unit doctor, wearing a different uniform, stood to the side. A sign above my head stated, “Military Conscription Selection Unit, Pa Phayom district, Phatthalung province.”

After the pledge of allegiance to the national flag, the officers and the unit doctor went off to perform their usual duties. The unit commander stepped forward and read the 2018 annual message from General Prawit Wongsuwan, the minister of defense. Then the selection unit spokesperson came to explain the steps in the military conscription process. Next, they divided those who were possible conscripts from those who were postponing service for convenience in verification of documents. Those who were entering the selection process took their shirts off and waited to be called by name and sub-district. I and others who were postponing our entrance into the process got in line to make the request and have our documents examined. Then we could go home. The primary documents I had to use were my citizen ID card and the summons for military service saved from last year’s postponement. 

While waiting for my name to be called for document verification and to be fingerprinted, I sat and read the information on the back of the So. Kho. 35 form (the summons to military service). The following warnings were listed: 

  1. When one receives the summons to provide military service, if you think that it is appropriate to receive an exemption or a postponement for any reason, bring the evidence to show to the selection committee on the selection day prior to the lottery. In instances in which there is no lottery, bring the evidence before the date stipulated to report to the unit. Otherwise, you will be deemed to no longer have the right to receive an exemption or deferral. 
  2. If one is to request a deferral on the basis that one must support one’s father and mother because they are disabled or elderly to the degree that they cannot make a living and there is no one else to care for them, or one must support one’s child whose mother has died or lacks the ability to do so or is disabled,  or it is necessary for one to support one’s younger siblings from the same parents or half-siblings of either the same father or mother, in which the mother and father are dead or are self-employed and the profit or loss is truly theirs, tax and duty is paid, and it is less than the amount set for that occupation in the ministerial regulation, inform the district officer at least thirty days before the selection day and petition the selection committee as noted in 1 above as well. 
  3. On the day stipulated for selection, bring one’s reserve force certificate, your diploma or evidence of any other study to show to the selection committee.
  4. Those who evade or defy the selection committee in order to not provide military service are guilty of violation of Article 45 of the 1954 Military Service Act and may be imprisoned for up to three years. 
  5. Regarding this summons to provide military service: If one is a passenger on a train, one must carry the summons to present to railway employees for inspection at all times. 

I overheard a phuan [friend] sitting nearby complain that, “So, I have to carry this summons with me when I take the train? Do I also have to carry it if I get on a plane?” I nearly burst out laughing because I did not think anyone else would have the same sense upon reading it, and would say it out loud to boot.

The selection of conscripts proceeds according to the following steps. At Table No. 1, a committee member calls the name of the selection subject. At Table No. 2, a physician assesses the bodily state of the selection subject. A registrar will separate the subjects into four groups: A) Healthy; B) Not as healthy as A), but not disabled; C) Those who have been in an accident or have a disease that will not heal within 30 days; and D) Physically disabled or have a disease exempting them from military service. At Table No. 3, the measuring table, a committee member will measure the height and body width of the selection subject.

It took me approximately 15 minutes to postpone and then I could go home. I come from a small district with few people and so the process is relatively quick. The process to select conscripts takes approximately one full day. Many nongs [younger brothers or friends] from my village had to face the selection process this year. The all came up to greet me. We all ran and played together as children and now the times when I come home and we can all meet up are few and far between. 

Many nongs are not able to study. They left school before completing the first half of high school to help out at home. They did not have the opportunity to complete the Reserve Officers Training Course (ROTC) and so do not have the right to postpone military service like me. Upon reaching age 21, they have to unconditionally face military conscription. I could only embrace them and whisper, “I cheer you on,” even though I know that their fates will be no different than those of baby chicks in the fists of power-crazed people. Squeezed to death. They are entirely unable to determine their own fates and futures. They must go through this rite before making any future plans.  Their futures must wait until they are free of the Thai Army’s extortion of their blood and flesh in the name of the state, civic duty and various other Thai state-endorsed good intentions bestowed upon them by the Thai state. Even though I will soon pass through the same rite, I possess some negotiating power. Their future is determined by the Thai Army in the name of all of us who allow conscription to continue under the banner of “the duty of the Thai man.”

Tuesday, 10 April 2018
3.30 pm, Up in the air between Nakhon Sri Thammarat and Bangkok

 
I was busy all day yesterday and had no time to look for the answers to my lingering questions. I searched on the Ministry of Defense website for the full version of General Prawit Wongsuwan’s message read by selection commanders across the country during the pledge of allegiance to the national flag as I sat waiting at the airport for my flight. The phrase, “the duty of the Thai man,” was repeated so many times that it was stuck in my head for two days. I was disappointed when I searched the Ministry of Defense website and could not find it. Too bad I did not catch all of the details when I heard it myself. 

People walk in waves in the airport. The smell of movement. Existence and the meaning of everything. We are in constant motion. I sat and mulled over the question of why the duty and meaning of being a Thai man is still bound up with being a soldier. I remembered where I was again only when the waitress bought me my cold espresso. 

I did locate the words of a public relations spokesperson from one university who proclaimed that, “… the selection of military conscripts to provide military civil service, or what is commonly referred to as military conscription, is annually set by the Ministry of Defense for April (1-11 April). Each potential conscript must present himself on the day, time and location specified in the summons, He must bring the various kinds of documentation, including the military conscription form (So. Kho. 9 form), the summons (So. Kho. 35 form), citizen ID card, and diploma or other evidence of education. If the potential conscript fails to appear, this constitutes evasion or mutiny and is a crime punishable with up to three years imprisonment. Every man who goes through the conscription selection process will receive attestation of doing so (So. Kho. 43 form), or what is often called the military service exemption form …”

Before returning to Chiang Mai, I chatted with five nongs who went through the process this year. One decided to drop out of university and apply to enlist because he wants to be a soldier. Another is not in school and his wife is four months pregnant. He lucked out and selected a black card. The image of him running all-out to embrace his wife still brings a smile to my face. I don’t want to think about what  the life of his little child would be like if he had drawn a red card. Another is a kathoey [male-to-female transgender person] who is well-known throughout the district. She called for cheers when she went up to select a card. A few seconds later, she cried out and fell to the ground because she picked a red card to be stationed with the army in Pattani.  But laughter once again emerged from those crowded around and watching the process. Everyone with whom I spoke was thoughtful. I am very happy for those who want to be soldiers and have the opportunity to do so.

At the same time, I am endlessly sorry for those who do not want to be soldiers but must because to not do so is a violation of the law.
The website of the Ministry of Defense stipulates that, “…The duty of every Thai man is to perform military service.  Serving the nation as a soldier is honorable and sacred because the Thai Army will train those who perform military service to be orderly and disciplined. Every conscript will train for an occupation and will acquire various kinds of knowledge that will be of great use and value. Military conscription generally takes place every April and those selected must serve for two years. There are exemptions and deferrals for those who studied ROTC or those who have achieved the levels of education stipulated in the Military Service Act or ministerial regulations…”  

I closed my computer and boarded the plane following the airline’s announcement. I was still stunned by what I had seen during the postponement process and could not do anything as I wished. All I could do is go over what happened and ask myself, “How will we resist military conscription?” I will persist with the idea that there are many ways to fulfill one’s duty as a Thai man. 

This is one of the goals of my life.
 
About the author: Nonthawat Machai (นลธวัช มะชัย) is a member of the Lanyim Group and a drama student at Chiang Mai University (CMU). In the middle of 2017, he became a defendant in case of violation of Head of the NCPO Order No. 3/2558. The case, known as the “An academic conference is not a military barracks” case, arose from activism at the International Thai Studies Conference in July 2017. At present, he is continuing his studies at CMU and working at the Northern People’s History Centre at Khruu Angun Malik’s House (Suan Anya), Chaiwana Foundation, Chiang Mai.

Originally published in Thai by Prachatai: หน้าที่ของชายไทย: บันทึกจากการเดินทางไปผ่อนผันทหาร

Translated by Tyrell Haberkorn.

Photo from Army PR Center