Let’s stop forcing boys to be soldiers

opinion August 29, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

The coming election affords a chance to consider alternatives to unnecessary, outdated military conscription



All of the political parties preparing to vie in next year’s general election – not just Future Forward and Pheu Thai – should press for a public debate on the need for military conscription. The question of whether Thailand needs to force every able-bodied man to do a stint in the armed services demands to be addressed.

Too many reports have been emerging from military bases about conscripted privates toiling as housekeepers for their superiors – or, far worse, being physically abused, sometimes to death. In neither case are the country’s interests being served or is its security being protected.

Military conscription began in old Siam with the aristocracy of Ayutthaya forcing all young men into the army to fight off Khmer and Burmese invaders – or to invade or annex foreign territories. Military and military-style rule was a fact of life then and has continued ever since with intermittent breaks. With it comes the political mindset that, to prove their patriotism, men must become soldiers and serve the Kingdom. From the generals’ point of view, in fact, there is no other way to serve the homeland.

Times have changed, democracy has set down roots and the rules regarding military service were modernised under King Rama V. There are no invaders or threats of invasion and global security has stabilised since World War II. And yet the ancient aristocratic mindset lingers, particularly among the military brass, and there are half a million citizens in uniform – not all voluntarily so by any means. The armed forces draft 100,000 young men annually on average, requiring them to serve for two years. 

The draft affords high drama each year as the sons of rich families are excused on the basis of school commitments or bribes and transgender would-be recruits withstand public harassment and humiliation. The Army won’t take the latter because it regards them as mentally ill, but they have to report for duty anyway to demonstrate that they’re psychologically unsuitable to serve.

What could possibly justify all the grief that conscription brings? There is no regional military threat. There is little possibility of war breaking out anywhere that Thai troops might be needed. These youngsters can put their skills and talents to better use. But, instead, a kid who’s gifted at computer coding can end up scrubbing the underwear of some general’s wife.

Conscription can be avoided by doing a three-year course of military training while in high school, but not every teenager can do this, so the draft notice will be arriving in the mail.

If the armed forces wish to insist on preparedness for some future conflict, they should also acknowledge that today’s battles require sophisticated equipment and the knowledge to handle it. They should thus be seeking to sign up – on a voluntary basis – young people with that knowledge or the ability to learn it and excel. The military needs “the right stuff” – kids who will bring needed skills and can reap benefits themselves from the experience – not farm boys or city toughs.

If the political parties contesting the coming election make changing the means of military recruitment a central campaign platform, the revamp could become part of the next government’s agenda. We believe they’ll find that many voters are prepared to support the change if viable alternatives are presented. Members of the ruling junta should be prepared to accept the outcome.