Its April in Thailand, and that means two big events in the Thai calendar: the Songkran festival marking the New Year in the Thai calendar, and the draft for compulsory military service. Thailand is one of 26 countries around the world where military service is compulsory, and all Thai males must report back to their home district in April of the year in which they turn 21 for the selection process.
Exemption from the Draft
Only those young men currently at university, or those who have completed the 3 year Reserve Officers Training Corps programme whilst at school, are exempt from the draft. Everyone else must attend selection and this year this included 2 young men from my Thai family, Den and Golf.
The Draft: Good Thing or Bad Thing?
Conscription, and other types of compulsory service, is a contentious issue. Even in countries which do not currently have conscription (47 in total compared to the 26 which do) feelings are mixed about the concept of compulsory military service. Many people think it is a good idea and a solution to a wide range of social problems associated with youth unemployment, criminal and anti-social behaviour, and failings in the education system. Put young people in uniform for a few years and that will turn them into polite functional citizens later in life. So the theory goes. Others do not agree.
The Draft Thai Style
All over Thailand in April school halls, community centres and government offices are put into service by the Thai Armed Forces for the military selection process. Each district has a quota to fill for young men to join the Army, Navy or Air Force. In Thailand if you volunteer then the length of service – 1 year for university graduates, 2 years for everyone else – is reduced by 50% and you get to choose what branch of the military you would like to serve in. A large part of the quota each year is filled in this way. In Thailand volunteers outnumber draftees.
Red or Black?
The selection process for the part of the quota which is not filled by volunteers is where the drama starts: the young Thai men get to choose a rolled up card in an opaque box. If they choose the black card then they are relieved of the duty to undertake military service. If they choose the red card then they must undertake the military assignment stated on the card.
Military Service in the Deep South
For the most unlucky young men that means time in the South of Thailand in the provinces of Yala, Pattani, or Narathiwat where there is ongoing conflict involving a disparate set of separatist and protest movements, which has claimed over 3,000 lives in the last 10 years and shows no sign of there being a peaceful solution in the near future. For others military service can range from everything from doing manual labouring jobs at a military base, to something more productive like learning to repair motor vehicles, digging irrigation ditches during droughts, or assisting in humanitarian duties at home and abroad. Compared to most NATO countries, in recent history Thailand’s military has become engaged in very few military conflicts outside of the unrest in the South of the country.
Golf is married to my wife’s sister. He has a good job at a resort and is generally getting on with his life, building a future for his family and a career. He turned 21 this year and therefore it became his turn to face the draft.
In his home district this year’s quota was around 70 people (required by the armed forces for service) which was nearly all filled by volunteers, leaving only 23 places to be filled by draftees and over 100 potential candidates. The draft in Thailand is done on a first come, first served basis. The box starts out with an equal number of cards to the number of candidates for conscription. In Golf’s draft there were a lot more black than red cards owing to the number of volunteers who had already come forward.
The draft is quite an occasion in most Thai communities, and the way it is conducted adds to the sense of occasion. The presiding draft officer provides the assembled audience with a running score of the remaining black and red cards after each candidates draws a card. Emotions can run very high at these events although, like many important occasions in Thailand, the atmosphere is for the larger part one of good humour with jokes made at the expense of both the fortune and the unfortunate.
Golf was unlucky. He choose a red card and must now do 2 years as a soldier. His assignment is with the regiment in his home town and thankfully it is very unlikely anyone will ever be shooting at him nor him required to shoot anybody. Boredom, and time away from his wife. are probably the worst he will suffer. His wife, my sister in law, is upset, as are his employers. Golf plans to come back to his current job when his tour of service is over.
Den is my wife’s youngest brother. He lives at home with his wife and two children. They married early and neither finished high school or undertook any kind of vocational training. Den has never been involved in any kind of criminal activity, or serious anti-social behaviour, but he is a bit ‘directionless’. Den helps out his father on the small family farm and in the small family shop. Clearly at his age some vocational training and eventually job with career advancement prospects, or indeed any job, would be a good thing.
The family were hoping that Den would pick a red card. His father thought a couple of years in the army would instil some common sense and work ethic in Den, and importantly it will get him earning some money. Following the introduction of Thailand’s minimum wage of 300 THB a day, conscripts now receive a fixed monthly salary of 9,000 THB a month. Not a fortune, the equivalent of £180 or $260, but enough to provide for a small family back home.
Den chose black.
Moral to the Story?
I am not sure that there is one. Fate is cruel. Nothing more. Conscription is clearly not all good or all bad. Some will benefit from it and others will not. Draft day is a big event in a Thai man’s life and its impact – for better or worse – can be life long. For the family we hope that these long term effects on both Golf and Den are positive not negative.