Compulsory military service an unusually divisive issue at the polls
published : 7 May 2023 at 07:07
newspaper section: News
writer: Wassana Nanuam
The issue of compulsory military service has gained national attention in the lead-up to the May 14 polls, with several parties pledging to end it in favour of voluntary enlistment if elected as the next government.
In Thailand, serving in the armed forces is considered a national duty under the law. Physically fit men at the age of 21 must undergo military service for up to two years.
Party proposals to scrap conscription have struck a chord with many voters who see compulsory military service as a hindrance to the pursuit of personal interests and career opportunities.
They also associate it with poor welfare, labour abuse and harsh treatment.
The Defence Ministry insists it has heard the call to end conscription and put in place a programme to switch to voluntary enlistment.
However, it has only met 30–40% of the quota, and the need for conscription to make up the shortage remains.
Maintaining national defence
According to Gen Kongcheep Tantravanich, spokesman for the Defence Ministry, the military needs about 100,000 new recruits each year to help fill various posts.
After 10 weeks of basic training, about 30,000 conscripts, or one-third of new recruits, are sent to fill seven border defence units, including those in the South, he said.
The rest of the recruits are sent to various units of the three armed forces, the Defence Ministry and the Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters, and their roles are assigned according to their units, such as those mitigating the threat of drugs and cybercrime or engaging in disaster relief operations.
"When there is a flood or fire near a military unit, these conscripts can be relied on to help people in distress, although it isn't their core mission," Gen Kongcheep said.
He said the number of people volunteering to join the military has gradually increased from about 20% to 35–40% over the recent years. During conscription season this year, a total of 35,617 people, or 38% of the quota, have joined voluntarily, he said. The rest are recruited through the conscription draw.
Responding to claims there are too many conscripts, the spokesman said only one-fifth, or 100,000 out of 500,000 soldiers, are drafted each year.
Those who do not want to enter service can undergo territorial defence training, known as Ror Dor, for three years to be exempted from the draft, he said.
Former army commander Gen Apirat Kongsompong relaxed some of the rules and cut back on physical training to encourage students to join Ror Dor training.
Transition to voluntary system
The army offers incentives to attract new volunteers, including job opportunities, said Maj Gen Sirichan Ngathong, deputy spokeswoman for the army.
Conscripts who are about to leave the service can apply to continue as non-commissioned officers, while those who apply at an army sergeant school are awarded extra points, she said.
About 4,000 positions in the army are available for conscripts who are about to be discharged, she said.
In addition, the army provides vocational training for conscripts who want to leave after fulfilling their military obligations, she said, adding the army has joined hands with the Department of Skill Development, the Department of Employment and the private sector to find jobs and boost employment opportunities.
According to Maj Gen Sirichan, people aged 18–22 are also allowed to apply to join the military, not just those who are 21 -- the group legally required to report for duty.
Those who sign up can apply online and choose units in their home provinces, she said.
Regarding welfare, the army has improved the living conditions of conscripts, adding they are considered "the army's youngest brothers".
Media reports of assault and abuse stir controversy with the conscription system, according to a source.
Although scandals involving hazing or labour abuse are less frequent, when a scandal erupts, it casts the armed forces in a bad light, making military service less attractive, the source said.
Compulsory enlistment is seen as depriving people of their opportunities to pursue their interests or make money to support their families.
While conscripts are given salaries and allowances, the amount is not enough, and some complain about their food allowance being embezzled.
The armed forces have implemented measures to address these issues, such as directly transferring money to conscript accounts, creating Line groups for conscripts to stay in contact with their families and opening barracks for family visits.
Gen Kongcheep insisted there is no such thing as "servants" in the military, but said there are thurakarn conscripts who perform tasks and errands as their official duty, and they do not run personal errands for officers.
"Thurakarn conscripts are not given jobs like doing laundry or household chores. If this happens, the unit commander will be held accountable," he said.
However, an army source said the practice of assigning one or two conscripts to work at the houses of senior officers remains and their tasks include doing laundry, cooking and driving.
According to the source, some conscripts, after completing basic training, prefer being assigned as aides to officers because they want to avoid more training, with a chance of being given extra allowances or considered for work after being discharged.
"If their bosses are high-ranking officers, they can expect other benefits and support. It is a deep-rooted practice in the military," said the source.
However, this could change due to growing calls for the abolition of conscription and the downsizing of conscription numbers.
Avoid hate speech
Politicians and the armed forces may have to sit down for talks and find a consensus when it comes to downsizing the number of troops, according to Gen Kongcheep.
He said both should define the scope of national security and see if their definitions match because there are several dimensions of national security, such as food and energy.
"Let's say if we want to build a fence for our house, we have to figure how high it should be to protect us from threats.
"If we agree on a 1-metre-high fence and somehow it can't deal with the threat, it's our responsibility," he said.
The armed forces are scaling down troop numbers, but many must be maintained especially along the border, he said, adding the armed forces are looking for ways to boost voluntary enlistment.
"An important thing is to refrain from devaluing the military and spreading hate.
"People may not want to enter the service because they are afraid of being scorned. It is a profession that its members are proud of," he said.
A source said some people only see the military in a bad light because of its intervention in politics.
He was asked about growing negative sentiment towards the military, especially on social media.
According to the source, anti-militarism appears to have grown following the 2014 coup led by then-army chief Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, whose prolonged stay in power is aided by the constitution.
This article is first of a series of two stories about politics and military conscription.