Every year, unless they have been exempted through reserve training, Thai men at the age of 21 receive a letter in the mail instructing them to attend the military draft. It is a summons for a dreaded rite of passage: jub bai dum bai daeng, the red and black cards that they will pick through a lottery. A black card frees its picker from service; a red card sentences him to two years as a private.
The debate over the need for military conscription has been increasingly featured in the public spotlight. The Future Forward party has always made this issue a key piece of its policy platform, but both the Pheu Thai and Democrat parties signaled that they would be open to abolishing conscription in the future and moving to a fully volunteer service.
I have opinions on many political issues, but on few do I have as strong a sense of justification as the need for Thailand to abolish military conscription. In this post, I want to lay out a clear case for why time is up for mandatory military service.
A cartoon recently published by the Manager newspaper featured a foreign army yelling at the Thai border, “In one year, we’re going to invade and take over your country!” In response, a Thai general yells back, “Thanks for the advance notice, so that I have time to draft some troops!” The cartoon captions: “If the enemy were this nice, then we’d be fine.”
This cartoon succinctly makes the most commonly used argument for why conscription remains necessary in Thailand: security concerns. Foreign enemies surround us, the argument goes, and without conscription, the Thai army would lack sufficient manpower to fight a war. But upon even the slightest bit of scrutiny, this argument falls apart.
Firstly, let us ask: is Thailand under such mortal threat? Even the government realizes that it is not. The latest national security plan, as summarized by Supalak Ganjanakhundee, states that Thailand “projects no major threats from outside the country, as it has managed to maintain good relations with neighboring countries. Internal conflicts in this countries and unclear demarcations of borders with them pose only minor security risks.” If the government itself knows that Thailand does not face security threats from its neighbors, then is the drumming of that risk when arguing the case for conscription not simply fear-mongering?
It may be instructive to compare Thailand’s military size with other countries, to see whether or not conscription really is needed. We can take two approaches to this: one is to compare Thailand’s military with other militaries of similar size as a proportion of the population, while another is to compare it with those of other ASEAN nations. I’ll use data from here.
Thailand has around 5.3 active military members per 1000 people. Most of the countries that have around the same ratio face much more imminent security threats than Thailand. Three are in the Middle East, a troubled region. Another is Afghanistan. One is Estonia, who faces a perpetual threat from Russia. Our neighbor Vietnam is indeed on this list, but it also faces greater security threats, particularly from China in the South China Sea.
We can also compare our statistics with other ASEAN countries. Myanmar has a higher military to population ratio than Thailand (7.4), but understandably so given its constant unrest and ethnic conflict. The maritime states except tiny Singapore and Brunei, on the other hand, have significantly lower ratios: Malaysia (3.5), Indonesia (1.5), and Philippines (1.2).
An unmistakable conclusion is that for a country with so few external threats, Thailand’s army is bloated. According to the army, in 2018 almost half the draftees had volunteered for military service. Given that some are willing to volunteer (for army benefits), is there really a need for a mandatory draft that adds to an unnecessarily big army?
The answer would be no. Thailand doesn’t need a larger standing army. What it needs is a smaller but more professional fighting force, which is exactly what opposition proposals have suggested.
Given that the need for conscription due to security concerns can be easily rebutted, what, then, could be the actual reasoning behind continuing to implement conscription? After all, this is not an exercise that comes cheap; annual drafting committees run at the tune of 50 million baht, while young men in their prime are taken out of the labor force. What benefits does Thailand’s military see to justify such costs?
An argument could be that conscription continues to provide an opportunity for the military to instill certain desired values into a large segment of the population. One would be hard pressed to find a more immersive camp for ideological indoctrination than military service. A sense of patriotism, appreciation for public service, selflessness: one could argue that these values can be gained from mandatory military service.
But is forcing someone into the military really the best way to instill such values? In this new era when so much counter-programming is available on social media, where it is easier for the population harbors a healthy skepticism towards propaganda, surely there must be more effective (and cost-effective) ways for nationalism to be promoted?
In addition, are the lessons that are gained from military service really what Thai people need in the 21st century? The great Japanese novelist once Natsume Soseki once wrote in his speech My Individualism that “When the country is strong, and the risk of war small, when there is no threat of being attacked from without, then nationalism ought to diminish accordingly.” I am not arguing here that nationalism is bad, but that military service essentially represents two years taken out of someone’s life to be instilled discipline and obedience at a time when the economy requires innovative thinking.
It is hard to conclude that conscription is more than just a relic of the Cold War, when ideological indoctrination and obedience was demanded by a government afraid of becoming the next domino to fall to communism. We know that army leaders still see the world through such a lens; that much was clear when army commander Gen. Apirat Kongsompong gave a stunning lecture in October that revived the red scare and accused the opposition of being communist sympathizers. Not surprising, then, that these same leaders would insist on keeping the Cold War practice of conscription.
Conscription would be less of an issue if it did not come at such a high human cost. Thais are familiar with the celebratory scenes of people and their families celebrating drawing a black card, and also of people fainting and crying when they draw a red one. There are reasons for that.
Wassana Nanuam, the Bangkok Post’s military reporter, recently shared a tweet depicting a conscript visiting his parents. His father, Wassana reported, is bedridden, and the family very poor. The army permitted a visit, and sent supplies to help, but one cannot help but ponder the cruelty of conscripting their son for military service at a time of great need for the family. Unavoidable, then, is the takeaway that conscription disproportionately affects the poorest and most vulnerable.
But even for others, there are economic costs. Jobs are lost in the two years they spend away. It is an immense opportunity cost; time that could have been spent pursuing professional growth becomes irretrievable.
And there are psychological costs too. Families and their sons, husbands and their wives; all are separated. Conscripts are instead subject to mental anguish and sometimes even physical abuse. Thais are all familiar with the stories of conscripts being forced to work as personal servants for higher-ups, and how one was even apparently beaten to death.
Puey Ungphakorn once said that “serving the nation and public services for the greater good is not confined to drafting soldiers, nor is it limited to serving in the army.” There are many ways for Thais to serve the nation that does not come at such a high personal cost. Here’s an idea. The prime minister himself once asked “what would we do if there is a flood but no conscripts to respond?” Perhaps, just perhaps, we could train more Thais to serve in emergency response teams?
It would take a much longer article to rebut all the arguments in favor of conscription, but some key points are clear. Firstly, there is no security-based justification that stands scrutiny. Secondly, conscription is a relic of the Cold War that no longer remotely meets the needs of modern Thailand. Third, it comes at high cost to both the state and to the conscripts themselves.
A fully volunteer army, on the other hand, would be more humane and efficient. It would involve only those willing to serve, and freed of the need to provide for a massive standing army, higher benefits can be distributed that ensures enough people enlist. And it would also be more fit-for-purpose: Thailand’s actual security concerns, such as unrest in the Deep South, require professional and well-trained soldiers, not a large conscript army. Unless the generals have ulterior motives — their desires to there is no reason not to reform.
Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza once wrote:
“…[the state’s] ultimate purpose is not to exercise dominion nor to restrain men by fear and deprive them of independence, but on contrary to free every man from fear so that he may live in security as far as is possible. It is not, I repeat, the purpose of the state to transform men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but rather to enable them to develop their mental and physical faculties in safety, to use their reason without restraint and to refrain from the strife and the vicious mental abuse that are prompted by hatred, anger or deceit”.
“The purpose of the state”, Spinoza concludes, “is in reality, freedom.” Abolishing conscription would be a major step forward for the Thai state to fulfill this duty. It is time for Thais to be given the time to spend their time “developing their mental and physical faculties” in ways that can be more beneficial for the nation. A professional volunteer army is exactly the way to accomplish this.