Most Thai bar boys love April. It is the month of their country’s New Year celebration, the one of three they celebrate each year that really matters. Leading into the year-end Buddhist holiday period is an equally important date. One that is not as popular with Thailand’s youth. Recruitment Day, the day each year that Thailand’s military gathers its annual quota of conscripts, precedes Songkran by a week or so. And the unlucky young men whose number comes up don’t have a very happy new year.
According to the Constitution of the Kingdom, serving in the Armed Forces is a duty of all Thai citizens. Young men over the age of 21 who have not gone through reserve training have the dubious honor of participating in Recruitment Day. Some volunteer to serve in their country’s armed forces. Most are subjected to a random draft, a lottery of the unkindest kind. Those who lose must serve for twenty-four months, while volunteers are only subjected to eighteen months of service. But as with all things Thai, the rules governing mandatory military service are guidelines. Status and money can make all the difference. Being a ladyboy doesn’t hurt either.
On Recruitment Day, all Thai men who have turned 21 must travel back to their home province – the place where their residency is registered – and take part in the military’s annual drive for fresh bodies. Each district has a quota that needs to be filled. Those who volunteer for service are processed first. Quick medical checks that would make a veterinarian shudder in shame are performed. Recruits must be physically fit, at least 5 feet 3 inches tall and with a chest size of 76 centimeters or more. “I do a rough check on their limbs to see if they’re bent or crooked, if they stand up straight or not, if they’re disabled or got anything missing or anything too short or too long,” said army officer Thongkham Maleesi. Pass those simple tests and, you’re in the army now.
When not enough men have volunteered to fill the amphoe’s quota, the lottery kicks in. Separated from family and friends the potential recruits huddle together in an area roped off from the crowd where they anxiously wait their turn at finding out just how lucky they are. Microphone in hand, with a beaming smile that would do a game show host proud, a ranking officer runs the proceedings, calling each young man up to the front, one at a time, to draw from the dreaded cannister.
The crowd loudly yells words of encouragement, hoping their cries of Black ! Black! on behalf of the young man will be heard by the gods while his parents and family members say quieter prayers hoping the family’s collective karma will be enough to intercede favorably in the selection process. Drawing a small slip of paper from the can, the young man hands it to the official who calls out the results to those gathered in anticipation. A black ticket means you’ve been spared and your life can go on. A red ticket means you belong to the Thai government for the next two years.
The lucky ones are excused from military service, processed out with smiles on their faces. Those whose luck just took a turn for the worse are led to a table where their initial induction into the military begins. A processor uses a large red felt pen to mark the inductee’s arm, designating his new place in the system. And then the next lucky winner, or loser, is called.
It takes a village to fill the district’s quota. The Thai sense of community means everyone gathered has fervent hope for each potential recruit to make it through the day, coming out the other side still a civilian. In the west, even if it were quietly to themselves, those with family members at risk would hope the possible conscripts who go first will draw the unlucky red ticket. It’s a matter of numbers. Once the quota is filled, the rest of the potential conscripts get a free pass. They get to go home without having to take their chance at the draw.
The army claims to be one of Thailand’s unifying institutions. They are right, they do bring Thais together. Because absolutely everybody – red shirt, yellow shirt, Buddhist, Muslim, straight or gay – wants to avoid joining the military. Anond Naknava, a 21-year-old college student taking his turn at his nation’s lottery admitted he did not want to be a soldier. But luck was not with him. He pulled a dreaded red ticket. Now he must take a break from his studies to join the navy. His face turning pale at the thought of what his near future holds, he tried to look on the bright side. “Now I’m chosen, I’ll get a salary and I won’t be any trouble to my parents,” he said. “If others can do it then I can do it too!”
“I don’t want to be a soldier. I’m afraid of being sent to the south,” said another potential recruit, Chanasorn Sodpakwan. If you have an education, you’ll get a better job. But even a better position doesn’t guarantee being saved from the worst case scenario: being posted to Thailand’s deep south where an insurgency waged by Islamic militants has left more than 4,500 people dead over the past seven years. Military personnel are a particular target. It’s even worse for those young men from those areas, many of whom are Muslims themselves. They stand a good chance of serving their two years waging an undeclared war against their neighbors.
There are ways around serving in the military. This is Thailand after all. Running is not the answer; those caught trying to escape conscription face three years in prison, followed by a stint in the army. Some choose a less painful form of service by enlisting in the Army Reserve Force Students program, a three-year period that means they will avoid the chance of being drafted into the full-fledged military force. But admissions to the reserves have been tightened recently. Among other requirements students must be between the ages of 18 and 22, have a grade point average of 2.50 or above, be physically fit, and pass a series of fitness tests. And they have to stay in school. Funding for the program is limited though, so only those who score high in their exams are accepted into the reserves.
The most popular way of avoiding military service altogether is through bribery. A tradition in Thai culture, the paying of tea money is seldom officially acknowledged but has become so common with the military draft that the government is taking steps to combat the practice. “We received some reports of corruption, and now we are investigating them,” said Lieutenant Colonel Norapon Jitpanya, head of the military registrar department. But in reality that probably just means a tightening of policy so that those of higher rank receive a bigger cut of the swag.
One man who wisely asked to not be identified described the process: “Men travel to the villages here in Isaan and talk to the boys who are coming up for conscription and ask if they want to be exempted from serving in the army,” he reported. “ A fee is then agreed on and when the date of their conscription comes they travel to Bangkok and meet the man, pay their ‘get out of the army fee’ and then go to the place where all the medicals and paperwork is being conducted.” The paid exemption is usually legitimized thanks to a fake medical report stating the young man is unfit to serve.
Fees paid have been reported to be as low as 10,000 baht, a real bargain, to 30,000. Last year, a national football player caused a stir after writing on his Facebook page that he had paid 30,000 baht to avoid military service. He later apologized and said he was joking. But it’s no laughing matter to the families who opt for this route. They are often forced to pay and get loans from unscrupulous loan sharks to pay the fees. And bar boys, with tears in their eyes, often turn to their favorite farang to finance their escape from military service. Smart ones pull that trick annually.
The third option is reserved for those of the third sex. Ladyboys, at least those who have gone under the knife, are exempt from the lottery and military service. Previously transsexuals were exempted on the grounds of a ‘psychological abnormality,’ but that has now been replaced by ‘misshapen chest’. Kridsada Kumsombat, a fabulous young man who weighs in heavy on the fabulousness and weakly in the man part is happy about the change in wording. “If they said I’m mentally ill it doesn’t look good on my record. But this way it’s okay,” she said. “ I feel like we have more rights because in the past ladyboys had to be soldiers but now that’s changed.”
Last year the Thai military proposed some new terminology to cover the country’s ladyboy and ladyboy wannabe population. Now Thai men are instead categorized by type. ‘Type 1’ refers to men ‘whose appearances are typical of men’. They have the most to be concerned with over the draft. Thaksin Chiamthong, director of the academic resources division of the Army Reserve Command reports, “Normally only Type 1 are required to draw a conscription ballot.”
Type 2 are men who have undergone breast implants. Type 2 men are held in reserve, says Thaksin. “If the number of Type 1 is insufficient, Type 2 will be conscripted as well, despite their female-like breasts.”
Full on ladyboys, those who have had a complete sex change, are classified as Type 3. They are exempt from military service. But are undoubtedly eager to serve Thailand’s military in their own way.
(A big shout out to Al for suggesting this article almost a year ago. Sometimes it takes me awhile, but I do listen!)