Despite Thailand not being at war, another batch of young Thai men will be drafted early next month to serve in the military against their will. This costly and unnecessary annual military conscription, which has existed by default for decades, needs a rethink. Many countries have abolished it. Thailand has no reason to carry on with it.
On Thursday, Defence Commander Viroj Vijitto revealed that the drafting process will take place ahead of Thai New Year -- Songkran -- from April 1-12. A total of 356,978 men will be called in for the selection process involving a lottery. Then, 104,734 men will be selected to serve in the lowest rank in the army, the navy, the air force and defence offices for one to two years depending on the level of their education.
Every year, we see photos of selected men fainting or crying upon learning about their fate in the media. While some people sympathise with them, many others criticise the men for not showing a sense of patriotism and wanting to serve the nation.
In fact, it is questionable what benefits military conscription can provide the country. Thailand's political and security contexts have changed from what they were in 1954 when the Military Service Act was promulgated and has been applicable until now. With the exception of the insurgency in the three southernmost provinces, which rather requires the expertise of professional soldiers, Thailand is facing no immediate or imminent security threats that would require such a high number of military draftees every year. The country is unlikely to be at war any time in the future.
Thai men who took a three-year territorial defence course during high school or university are exempt from the conscription. Many of those who do not take this course and are subject to the draft usually come from poor family backgrounds.
There are both psychological and economic reasons which demotivate them from serving in the military. First of all, they have to be separated from their parents, wives or children. Many have to quit their jobs and most cases their employers get replacements without waiting for them to complete their service.
Reported violence and physical abuse, including torture, against army conscripts at military camps over the years likely make many unwilling to "serve the nation". More distressingly, some of them have to work as servants at officers' homes.
Research has also found that a substantial number of conscripts develop psychological problems during their active service due to immaturity, homesickness, physical and mental stress.
Certain economic concerns provide a strong argument as to why conscription should be abolished. Draftees can be active in the workforce. At a young age, they can contribute to the nation's labour markets. Instead of reaping economic benefits from them, the state has to pay a large sum of money to keep them in the military. The government spends about 12 billion baht every year in salaries for new draftees, each of whom receives 10,000 baht a month. That is a waste of financial resources which could be used for other purposes such as public health.
Misplaced nationalism, embedded in our education system, has resulted in support for the military draft among the public. But patriotism does not have to be limited to serving in the military but in other areas where help is really needed such as social and community services.
The public and policy makers need to move away from fear of change or the misplaced notion of nationalism embedded with conscription. We must consider abolishing conscription and adhere to only a voluntary recruitment system.
People should be given the option to choose whether they want to serve in the military.