Transform conscription to national service

Transform conscription to national service

A man reacts upon finding out via a lottery system that he will be conscripted into the military at a venue in the capital in April last year. PATIPAT JANTHONG
A man reacts upon finding out via a lottery system that he will be conscripted into the military at a venue in the capital in April last year. PATIPAT JANTHONG

Late last month, Private Noppadol Worakitpan died from cardiovascular failure soon after returning home. Allegedly, two other privates accompanying him informed his family he had been physically punished the day before, resulting in police investigations into the ninth such death within a decade.

In addition to holding the perpetrators accountable for these crimes, it is time that Thailand replaced mass conscription with a national service programme to offer citizens a choice.

Under the 1954 Military Service Act, Thai men aged 21 are called in for selection for military service, involving a lottery, meaning conscription is not universal. Men who have completed a bachelor's degree and volunteer for the military normally serve for six months, but if drafted via lottery, they serve for one year. Men who have completed secondary education through Grade 12 or vocational school and volunteer also serve for one year, or two years when drafted via lottery. In secondary and tertiary education programmes, male and female students aged 15 to 22 years may take the territorial defence curriculum, which takes five years to complete, with three years providing draft exemption.

Military conscription has now been abolished in most countries, and a strong economic argument exists for ending conscription in Thailand. The draft leads to a massive waste of resources, with the annual drafting committees costing over 50 million baht. During the past decade, the state has paid approximately 10 billion baht per year in remuneration to draftees, a huge percentage of Thailand's military budget and a significant proportion of total national expenditure.

Problems with the draft include draftees receiving low remuneration, though some previously held good jobs. There are financial impacts because they had to quit their jobs to serve. This demotivates draftees, and there is no guarantee they can regain their former positions. As draftees may spend two years on active duty, their former employers hire new workers to replace them, also disadvantaging the employers.

Each year there are reports of ongoing human rights violations against draftees, including torture leading to death, as part of a culture of punishment. During the past decade alone, there have been nine such cases of which the public was made aware and many others may have gone unreported.

Distressingly, some conscripts are transferred to work as servants or "service soldiers" at officers' and retired officers' homes. They are ordered to carry out chores like such as mowing the lawns, washing clothes, looking after the house, buying groceries, working as private chauffeurs, and carrying the bags of the officers' wives. This practice is admitted to and even condoned by one army chief.

Corruption also allegedly occurs with salaries given to officers, especially those serving for six months. There has been allegation that these will be trained for the first three months before being allowed to go home after signing a deal to hand over their salary allowances of 9,000 baht a month to commanding officers.

There is also a severe problem of mental health. The military draft causes stress in a large number of Thai people, most of whom are taught through Buddhism to be peaceful. Consider the most recent incident this year, where one 21-year old private stationed at the Kaweela army base in Chiang Mai became depressed, took an M16 rifle, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger, instantly killing himself.

Research into the mental health of new Thai soldiers has found that the change from citizen to soldier causes mental problems, resulting in schizophrenia, depression, adjustment problems, uncontrollable anxiety, panic attacks and traumatic stress disorder. Statistics from the Mental Health Department of Abhakornkiatiwong Hospital at Sattahip navy base in Chon Buri found that each year a substantial number of draftees are admitted for continuous mental health treatment. Although some patients have a history of mental illness, many draftees develop psychological problems during training, contributed to by immaturity, homesickness, and physical and mental stress.

There is also the issue of professionalism. Except for the deep South insurgency, Thailand is not at war nor is likely to be at war. And, in fighting an insurgency, experienced, professional soldiers are required to win hearts and minds.

Some Thais support the military draft, largely through inertia, fear of change, conservatism and misplaced nationalism. This can be seen by state sponsorship of comedy movies and soap operas about soldiers, for instance My Super Lovely Captain and Love Missions, portraying the experiences of draftees in a favourable light. Popular online pages promote the army, and famous public figures have criticised unwilling draftees for a lack of patriotism.

However, in most countries, patriotism is instilled via other means. In the Philippines, both male and female college students in public or private educational institutions are required to undertake one of three programme components, namely civic welfare, literacy and numeracy training, or reserve officers' training corps, for two semesters. And in Germany, a similar programme for years supported the country's kindergartens, ambulance and fire services, hospitals, care centres and retirement centres. In Thailand, national service could solve the ageing population problem overnight.

There is political support for change. For years, Democrat Party member Vilas Chanpitaksa has urged the abolition of conscription on the grounds it creates personal empires and spreads corruption. Veera Somkwamkid, secretary-general of the People's Anti-Corruption Network, proposes voluntary military service, also on the grounds that conscription wastes resources. Further, Puey Ungphakorn, the late Thai intellectual, noted that: "Serving the nation and public services for the greater good is not confined to drafting soldiers, nor is it limited to serving in the army."

A moral society is one that provides its people a choice about serving in the military, and the Thai military draft should be radically questioned. Fundamentally, abolition of the draft can dismantle the personal fiefdoms which exist in the Thai military. Abolishing conscription makes sound economic sense, and universal national service would revolutionise the economy. It also promotes a civilian government which stands above the military, a fundamental principle for eventually demilitarising Thailand and consolidating Thai democracy. Human rights violations and deaths will otherwise continue needlessly to occur.

John Draper is Director of the Social Survey Center at Khon Kaen University and a member of the Project for a Social Democracy (PSD). Siwach Sripokangkul is Director of the Research Group on Local Governance at Khon Kaen University and a member of the PSD.

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