When an army of journalists – happened to be all female – dressed as schoolgirls had burst into laughter at ‘lunch party’ with the Thailand’s Junta chief Prayut Chan-O-cha at Government House on January 8, it has become a talk of the town in the evening and onward. Commentators took to Social Network Service to lament wretched state of Thai media. A senior Thai journalist, Pravit Rojanapuruk termed it “lapdogs” in his column published on the progressive daily Khaosod English days later.
The laughter scene deemed a sequence of the poll in December conducted by National Statistic Office. The poll has resulted in stunning figure that 99.3% of Thais are happy with the Junta’s performance. The approval rate was “corrected” to 98.6% later on. So much for a change. No matter what credibility of the poll has remained, overwhelming approval of the Junta was of ‘Servitude Volontaire’, which is an essay title by French writer Étienne de La Boétie in 16th century. It’s not entirely impossible that ‘unified happiness’ can be extracted from servitude volontaire in a society where military rule becomes a norm. In Thailand, more then 10 Prime Ministers have had military background since the 1932 Siamese Revolution which has terminated Absolute Monarchy. Ever since military coup has been habitual occurrences, more than a dozen, while servitude ‘volontaire’ overraping ‘compulsory’ one. What has been clear cut since the latest coup in May 2014 is either volontaire or compulsory servitude have got overdosed with strict legislations, including Lèse majesté, and intimidations.
However, there are detectable number of student activists who have kept straightforward their unhappiness with the military rule. Netiwit chotiphatphaisal, the 19 year old high school student deserves the most outstanding given the age and the level of defiance. He is the first conscientious objector in Thailand where military is a source of fortune, status and near-absolute power. Having started to mull over at the age of 16, he eventually has declared himself as a conscientious objector on September 5th 2014. It was his 18th birthday.
“Military rule has dominated Thai society, not only now but also for a long time” reads his declaration. “They controlled text books to promote nationalism and respect of the army. We know they want to make Thailand a military state”
Netiwit hasn’t limited his reasons to ‘non-violence’, Buddhism or pacifism. Nor, has he compromised his criticism on Thai military as well as on Buddhism. “I cannot say I am a Buddhist in a country, where full of violence and Human Rights violation occur” he stated adding “I am a conscientious man”
“I am a conscientious man”
Thailand is one of more than 30 countries that have conscription. Based on Military Service Act of 1954, all male citizens are obliged to serve in the military upon reaching 21 years old. It is generally perceived that around 60% of some 300,000 forces are voluntary professional soldiers, and the rest would be filled with conscript soldiers. Thailand also have more flag officers, many of whom are just holding ranks and salary, than the US. As of 2013, it has 1,750 officers while the US had less than 1,000 as of 2011 for several times more force than Thailand.
“Despite Thailand has no evident threat of war, the budget of the army is rising with every fiscal year. How the military spend its budget is something in the shadow. Their spending should be under scrutiny” said Pakawadee Veerapaspong, the independent writer and activist based in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, in an email interview with this writer. Pakawadee has been one of a few outspoken critics advocating ‘military reform’. She supports abolishing conscription.
She said up until 2006 coup, which has ousted the then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, people thought military coup was something obsolete in Thai politics. And it would and should never happen again.
“So I look back to the pro-democracy uprising against military dictator in 1992 or ‘Black May’”
Pakawadee recalled the troubled history. There was a wide belief then that the military was expelled from the politics and returned to their barracks.
“Because of the belief, people didn’t try to reform many aspects of the military. That’s why we have to live in this nightmare of dictatorship again and again” she said.
Since the 2014 coup, the Junta has taken various measures in the name of “reform” process, in which the military have summoned activists, journalists and political opponents for “attitude adjustment” or “talks”. The words of “attitude adjustment” has become compatible with “reform”. Increasing measure for “talks” is an abduction of dissents, including the prominent student activist Sirawith Seritiwat (aka “Ja New”). Sirawith was abducted by a group of uniformed and masked men in front of his Tammasat University at night January 20. According to the local media Khaosod English report, he was slapped, verbally abused and most dreadfully blind folded then asked several questions such as “why are you talking with journalists?” Next day, the Junta’s spokesperson has admitted they were behind his abduction and released him. In less than a week, however, another student activist was abducted by believed to be military officers in plain clothes. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR)’s recent report suggested that from May 22 2014, when the incumbent military regime staged the coup, to September 30 2015 1,408 civilians were tried at military court last year. There’s no sign of reforming military itself, but strengthen it with various means of which is the lately passed bill.
Last November the Junta has brought another service bill called ‘Reserved Forces Act’. The junta appointed-legislature has passed the bill without objection but four abstentions. Neither debate nor outcry was observed other than online petition. Under the new law 12,000,000 male citizens aged between 18 and 40 old are subject to a random draft for two months military training regardless their past duty. Annual drafting number would be 300,000, 2.5% of the target citizens.
I met a small group of high school students a month after the bill passed. The teens have showed me A4 sized papers, on which they wrote “Thai men are not slaves of the Military”. They said they were considering outdoor campaign with the “pickets”. Among the students was a 19 year old student Nithi Sankhawasi (19). He has just completed Territorial Defense Training, or locally known as “Ror Dor” for 3 years during the high school. Ror Dor is a military training for army reserve force students. It is, most of all, an optional way not to be called in draft procedure when they would turn 21 year old.
“Every Friday we should go to the military camp. We learn about the old Thai history, but never was contemporary issue. We also learn about King, Religion (Buddhism) and Military besides occasional military training” Nithi said. “You have to buy shirts and boots just like solidiers. Everyone, who are on Ror Dor training, has to pay by themselves. All the businesses belong to military” the teen added. To him, this is about corruption. “I felt it was waste of time. Teen-age is precious time of your life, isn’t it?” Nithi asked. The 16 year old Saengchai Law has completed first year of Ror Dor. He said 13 out of 17 male students in his calss are taking Ror Dor programe. But Netwit, the conscientious objector has not done this. Thus he is subject to conscription in two years.
“I have had a problem with Ror Dor also” said Netiwit. He raised the point of military training for underages. “Schools want student to obey like soldiers” he said. “They want us to get fear of military. So when coup happens, little resist. Mostly ok with it” he said.
Under the military regime, student reserve forces seem more obligated to command. On February 4, Army chief has announced “army students” – student reserve force – would be deployed at polling stations for upcoming referendum of the Junta drafted constitution. The second draft by the Junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) has come out end of January to have faced heavy criticism since it would empower aristocracy. Concern is growing that the Junta want to creat intimidating air for voters albeit having “army students”. 3 days later, Col Winthai Suwaree, spokesperson of NCPO has ‘denied’ the very announcement by army chief saying “army had a policy to encourage these students to take part as volunteers”
“Thai men are not slaves of the Military”
Since his declaration, Netiwit has received more than a thousand messages which are mostly threats to kill or beat him. “They argued I was not patriotic enough” he said. One of death threats was from a soldier in the troubled southern provinces. The provinces, popularly known as “Deep South” have witnessed the renewed insurgency since January 2004 claiming 6,000 lives for the past decade. Last December, Internal Security Operation Command (ISOC) has said security personnel in the Deep South would be cut in 2016 by more than 1,400 personnels to make 69,295”, which number includes conscript soldiers although percentage has not been revealed. Many of conscript soldiers are from poverty-stricken ‘Issarn’ (the country’s North East), where anti-coup movement have established a foothold.
According to the English Daily <The Nation> report, the chief of the 26th Army Military circle, Maj General Dech-udom Nicharat “urged young men to report to authorities to serve their country”. The report suggested that 900 of 21-year-olds have avoided registering for military conscription in the Northeast province of Buriram – bordering with Cambodia– in 2015. The punishedment is upto 3 years in jail under section 27 in conjuction with section 45 of the Military Service Act. And those who evade the newly passed Reserve Forces Act would face even harshier sentence, 4 years.
“I can’t say I am ready to go to jail as of now. I hope there would be an alternative way I can do. But if no choice, I might have to go” said Netiwit.
His father once talked of “paying money”. Yet, Netiwit opposed it because it’s corrupt way. “The poor can’t pay the money. It’s not fair, not just”. Netiwit said his family is low middle class and respect his decision.
Netiwit, who said is interested in the US’s presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, is not aggressive to advocate abolishment of conscription. He thinks “too radical change” would not work in Thailand. “Step by step” he said. For the time being he supports ‘alternative civilian service’, which has been practiced in several countries including Switzerland. Sometime in 2014, Netiwit met a Switzerland youth in India where the youth did volunteer for NGO as an alternative civilian service. That looked definitely alternative to Netiwit, who wants to learn about “living among people who think differently” because it’s “contemporary issue”.
“Also” he said “small army would be more effective. But Thai army is too big and against Thai people. They killed many of them”.
The idea of ‘conscientious objector’ is new for Thai society. “The fear of prosecution by military court, the beating and bullying by officers once recruited in the barrack is wide spread” said writer Pakawadee. She has emphasized “much support is needed for Netiwit when the time comes for his conscription age”
Would there be a way out set for the Thailand’s only conscientious objector in two years? Little sign provoking ‘yes’.