Conscripts aren't servants

Conscripts aren't servants

The army's tradition of allowing officers to use conscripts as personal houseboys was hit with more bad press this week as one of the newly enlisted men exposed his degrading and inhumane working and living conditions while serving at the residence of a military officer.

While this is a blatant violation of the man's human rights, shining a light on the physical and psychological violence meted out to conscripts, it makes it hard to ignore the dark side of the army's tradition of allowing a quota of "houseboys", a practice that has fostered corruption and conflicts of interests. In sum, this custom should no longer be tolerated.

But for the army, an institution that barely bothers with concepts like "transparency", removing a perk like this is considered out of the question. It is therefore not a surprise to see military bigwigs this week ducking and avoiding all talk about the calls to scrap the tradition but merely treating the latest controversy as an isolated case.

In an 11-minute video that has been shared on social media since Friday, the conscript, who is attached to the 2nd Infantry Battalion in Prachuap Khiri Khan, said he wanted to serve in the army and never imagined he would end up working at a farm linked to an officer's residence. He said he and other soldiers were ordered to raise chickens and also live and sleep next to them. He also claimed the officer verbally and physically abused him.

The army responded by taking him back to the camp and ordering a probe into the case. Army chief Chalermchai Sitthisad said the officer will face disciplinary action if found guilty. Asked by the media whether the "houseboy rule" should be scrapped, he avoided the question and said officers should only use conscripts for "appropriate missions". While his response suggests he disapproves of how the conscript was treated, it also demonstrates the army's insistence on sticking to tradition.

But senior officers should realise that assigning conscripts to work as personal servants at their homes is far from an "appropriate" mission, let alone subjecting them to violence and inhumane treatment.

Running errands, taking care of family members, gardening, taking up domestic chores and helping out at a restaurant or a chicken farm can't be considered "appropriate missions" because they serve personal interests, not official duties.

If government officials are not allowed to use their subordinates as personal servants at home, military officers should have to follow suit. The use of public resources for personal benefit is a conflict of interest that should not be decriminalised for the benefit of the army's top brass.

In addition, there have been several allegations about a common practice that sees officers allow conscripted houseboys to return home if they agree to surrender their salaries. If these claims are true, the tradition has fostered outright corruption.

In the past decade, there have been several other cases of conscripts being violently and fatally abused while serving as houseboys or in other capacities at military camps.

Thailand, which is not at war, should axe conscription right now. There is no need to spend 12 billion baht a year forking out salaries for the 100,000 or so conscripts who end up serving as personal servants or being kept inside army camps for no particular reason.

Many countries, particularly those Western ones that launched conscription laws, have since ended the practice.

Moreover, Thailand can retain a voluntary recruitment system and train recruits to serve as long-term professional soldiers.

The army's resistance to mounting calls to end the houseboy allowance shows how it is more interested in protecting its own ranks and exploiting state-subsidized labour than promoting equal rights.

But this self-serving practice is wrong, and no one should be fighting to keep it.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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