Mixed responses to calls for ending compulsory military service in Thailand

Photo Courtesy of Bangkok Post

Academics and human rights defenders have provided mixed responses to the increasing calls to end compulsory military service in Thailand, intensifying as the May 14 polls approach. The Move Forward Party and the Pheu Thai Party have both pledged they will terminate compulsory service in favor of voluntary enlistment if they win the elections and form the next government.

These parties have proposed that the Defence Ministry reduce the number of young men required for military service under the current conscription system, in which Thai men aged 21 can be drafted for up to two years. Public opinion towards military conscription has become increasingly negative, with reports of violence in military camps, subpar food quality, and inappropriate use of conscript labor cited as reasons.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, an independent academic and security expert, has revealed that the army has conducted a study into voluntary military systems, which have already been implemented in some regions. However, the expenses associated with training soldiers in such a system are higher compared to conscription. Panitan also argued that conscription presents benefits, including instilling self-discipline in the conscripts, who serve the country.

The academic explained that the army has not completely considered transitioning from conscription to a voluntary system, as some voluntary candidates might fail to meet the necessary criteria. Rather, a hybrid system combining the two might attract people’s interest, offering them the opportunity to work in military hospitals or military enterprises, and the prospect of career advancement within the armed forces.

In response to proposals to downsize the military, Panitan cited the capped armed forces and reduced number of generals implemented by the Chuan Leekpai government during the 1990s economic recession. This order was subsequently annulled by former Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh.

To address cases of hazing and abuse of conscripts and violence within military camps, Panitan suggested that the army employs security-cleared outsourcing companies, which would prevent conscripts from being unwillingly enlisted for domestic services. He also recommended the army enforce stricter discipline to avoid violent incidents that tarnish its reputation.

Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist at Rangsit University, asserted that the army should be prepared for imminent challenges. The voluntary military system initiated two years ago, has received gradually more favorable feedback each year, thanks to improvements in remuneration and welfare provisions.

According to Wanwichit, growing numbers of conscripts are unwilling to serve amid reports of corruption, food quality issues, and inadequate camp facilities. He believes that the military should specialize in addressing specific security concerns including disaster relief, wildfire containment, and evacuation operations, and invest in disaster mitigation equipment to enhance its credibility. He also suggested that savings from decreasing conscription numbers could provide funding for military technology development.

Meanwhile, Cross Cultural Foundation Director and human rights activist Pornpen Khongkachonkiet described compulsory enlistment as outdated, arguing that the concept should be abandoned as Thailand is not currently engaged in warfare. She proposed amending the Enlistment Act to create a voluntary system that would only recruit individuals with suitable qualifications and a genuine interest in joining the army. Pornpen further recommended that the military hire external employees to perform domestic tasks for officers, thereby mitigating labor exploitation among conscripts.

Addressing violence against conscripts, Pornpen explained that, in many cases, it is challenging to initiate civil or criminal cases against offenders due to their eagerness to reconcile and compensate the victim’s family. She expressed hope that the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearances Act would encourage further witness complaints.

Finally, Supensri Phengkoksoong, Director of the Social Equality Promotion Foundation, stated that political parties’ promises to abolish compulsory military conscription could be indicative of this reform’s widespread popularity. Supensri called on the military to treat transsexual women fairly during conscription screening, respecting their gender identity and avoiding unnecessary embarrassment. Supensri emphasized the need to not only reform the army in terms of funding allocation but also address issues of transparency and credibility.

Thailand News

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Mitch Connor

Mitch is a Bangkok resident, having relocated from Southern California, via Florida in 2022. He studied journalism before dropping out of college to teach English in South America. After returning to the US, he spent 4 years working for various online publishers before moving to Thailand.