One of the last rituals of the Buddhist year in Thailand is also one of the most unpopular: the draft. Every young Thai man must present himself for military service and, if he is not stupid or desperate enough to volunteer, can be drafted by lottery. He will then spend up to two years in the armed forces.
Today—as red-shirt protesters stormed parliament and an embattled prime minister announced a state of emergency which grants even more power to an ascendant Thai military—I watched the draft take place at a school in Klong Toey, the dockside slum area in Bangkok. Hundreds of young men were given numbers, health checks, and a long wait in a sweltering hall for an uncertain future.
The military needed to recruit 118 soldiers from this district. Only 57 volunteered, while three were dragooned for failing to register on previous years. The rest had to be drafted from 200 or so remaining candidates, who had a one in four chance of getting drafted. The lottery works like this. Each man must pull a ticket from a plastic bucket held aloft by an officer. If the ticket is black, he is free to go. But a red one assigns him to the army or navy.
Families and friends crowded the windows and doorways. The air in the hall thickened. As each man nervously stepped forward, the crowd cried “Black! Black!” and cheered when a black ticket was plucked from the bucket. The army claims to be one of Thailand’s unifying institutions. Watching the draft, you realize how true that claim is. The army does bring Thais together, because absolutely nobody—red shirt or yellow shirt, Buddhist or Muslim, straight or gay—wants to join it.
Those unlucky enough to chose red today might soon find themselves in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces, where a war against Malay-Muslim insurgents has claimed some 4,000 lives since 2004. (For more on this, don’t miss Orlando de Guzman’s brilliant new documentary, “Recruitment Day.”) Does this affect how many men volunteer? Not really, said Lt-Col Wiboon Sricharoensukying, the officer in charge. As educational standards improve, and as the economy recovers, fewer men choose to join, he explained. The prospect of deadly combat isn’t really a factor.
Of course, with the freshly inked state of emergency now supposedly in force, now we’re all marching to the military’s tune. I asked Lt-Col Wiboon: Isn’t it true that soldiers really run the country these days? He replied slowly, as if reading from a script. “I still believe the army is the tool of the government,” he said. Then he began to laugh.