There are not many countries where it makes sense to ask an 86-year-old to choose, among all the dictators they have lived under, which was the worst. This is simply because most countries don’t offer much choice. But Sulak Srivaraksa was recently asked which dictator, going back to Plaek Phibunsongkhram, was the scariest.
His choice was Sarit, because he was the cleverest. And he had this comment to make about our erstwhile dictator-wannabe-PM and current PM-wannabe-dictator: ‘Mr. Prayut, he doesn’t know a damned thing about anything.’
So is Prayut the least clever? I had ma doots. Thanom wasn’t exactly Professor Brainiac, doddering from one funeral to the next while Prapass looted the country. And Phibun himself was the clown who thought national progress came from everyone wearing hats and husbands being compelled to kiss wives before leaving for work each morning.
So the dictator stupidity bar is limbo-dancingly low. Does Prayut manage to slither under it?
In the past he’s regurgitated the nationalist nonsense about the Thais originating from the Altai Mountains, but then loads of Thais his age still believe this Ministry of Education propaganda even if the MoE itself has quietly disavowed it. And he did recommend Animal Farm while arresting people for reading 1984. But, you know, understanding allegories like Animal Farm is not exactly a straightforward reading comprehension exercise. (And, apart from constitutional oaths, there is good evidence that Prayut can in fact read).
But he’s now tried to take another swipe at Future Forward’s Thanathorn on the topic of conscription and put himself well in the running for dumbest despot of the decade.
Sulak claimed that Prayut knows nothing. We might also ask, ‘does he understand what little he does know?’
And when he comes out with ‘We have already drafted men on a voluntary basis’, you’ve got to wonder. Draft: ‘select for compulsory military service’. Voluntary: ‘done without compulsion’.
So Prayut’s army has selected men for compulsory military service without compulsion. Duh.
OK, slip of the tongue, maybe. But then he says, ‘It [conscription] doesn’t mean everybody has to become a soldier’. Well, no, the draft has always been a male-only affair. But remember ‘select for compulsory military service’? ‘Select’ automatically means not everyone.
Alright, maybe there are people in Thailand who don’t know what conscription means, so it is generous of Prayut to bestow on them the intellectual fruits of his long military service.
“Should we scrap the conscription and hire soldiers?” Gen Prayut asks. “If so, how much will we have to spend? Do we have a budget large enough for that?”
One assumes that by ‘hired soldiers’, Prayut means volunteers, not mercenaries. At least one hopes he does. Volunteers and conscripts currently get the same pay. Replace conscripts with volunteers and the wage bill stays exactly the same.
Of course, right now the number of volunteers is less than the total number of enlisted men, so maybe Prayut is thinking that to get more volunteers, appeals to patriotic spirit may not be enough, so he may need the sweetener of a pay raise. So he will need more money.
Future Forward of course have already told him one way he can get that. The Thai military has a totally disproportionate number of high-earners with the rank of general. Get rid of the majority of unnecessary generals by some version of the ‘up or out’ promotion system of most military systems (and the US has already been advising the Thai military on how to do this, at no little expense but to little or no effect), and you may already have made enough savings.
Prayut also argued that soldiers are among the “first rescuers” when there are natural disasters like floods or drought and indeed if they are properly trained (which at the moment most are not) this is an excellent use of military manpower. But if conscripts are replaced by volunteers, where’s the difference?
Drifting off into the edges of insanity, Prayut argues that ending conscription and relying on a volunteer army would somehow prevent people from participating in national security. It seems that in Prayut’s mind if you stop compelling people to do something (like conscription), you then have to compel them not to do that thing. Can he not get away from this mindset that every human action needs compulsion from some higher authority?
And finally, Prayut turns to the last refuge of the authoritarian. Military training instils discipline. Which explains why every constitution (which all say that everyone must obey it) has been disobeyed, and summarily ripped up, by an undisciplined military.
Go on, look at the mayhem on the roads. All those scofflaw drivers must be the ones who never benefitted from conscription, but all those law-abiding drivers, ahem, must be ex-recruits. ’Slogical, innit?
But one thing that Prayut fails to mention about conscription is that it is maybe the biggest source of corruption in the military. Forget about generals muscling their way into directorships of private companies. Forget the 10 or 20 per cent creamed off the top of military hardware budgets. Conscription is a regular money-earner, month after month, year after year.
Once they have gone through basic training, most conscripts do no real soldiering at all. The visible abuses – privates cleaning officers’ homes and working unpaid in their private businesses – are exposed in the media from time to time with vague promises to get rid of the practice.
But a much bigger problem is with the conscripts you can’t see. Thousands and thousands of them are on the books but not on the bases. Their TMB bank books, ATM cards and PINs are still there, safely in the hands of their officers; but the supposed soldiers are out in the real world, doing whatever you can do when you don’t have a civilian ID card. In exchange for the freedom to work the black economy, they consign their salaries to those officers who drive chauffeured Mercs on 20-odd thou a month.
They’ll not be doing that once the draft is scrapped.