“Everyone is a human being; I do not kill anyone.
I will be a ‘conscientious objector’,
I will not be a soldier in the Thai army or any violent army.”
So stated Thai high school student activist, and my old friend, Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, on 10 September 2014, his 18th birthday, in a statement published on the website of the War Resisters’ International. The statement appeared just a few months after the coup d’état of 22 May 2014, launched by the Royal Thai Armed Forces andled by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, Commander of the Royal Thai Army (RTA), who has been in power ever since despite the democratic transition initiated in 2019.
In his statement, Netiwit argued that conscription wasone of the sources of Thailand’s social problems, as it is a direct attack against individual freedoms. His position is based on his belief in non-violence as a key moral and democratic value. He decided accordingly to publicly announce that he was a conscientious objector and that he did not intend to serve in the military when the time came.
Today, nine years later, he reached the age of 26, and, as stipulated in the Thai Act on Military Service, he must finally join the military. His application for a draft deferment has reached a dead-end. But in the face of the dictates of the law, Netiwit has remained consistent in his stance: through multiple interviews with Thai and international outlets as well as his own books on resistance to military conscription published by the independent press he founded, Sam Yan, he has made clear that his position on military service has not changed. On April 9th, 2023, Netiwit, currently known by the monastic name Phra Jaranasampanno, issued a new statement against the draft. And his gesture of civil disobedience sparked widespread controversy over conscription in Thai social media.
Conscription in History
Conscription, the mandatory enlistment of citizens for military service, has been a controversial issue throughout history. Despite the abolishment of conscription in many countries, it remains a compulsory practice in several others. While some argue that conscription is necessary for national security, others contend that it is an outdated and unjust system that violates individual rights and freedoms.
According to the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand, serving in the armed forces is a national duty of all Thai citizens, but, in practice, only males over the age of 21 who have not gone through reserve training are subject to conscription. They are required to take part in the conscription lottery for military service. In a well-known system in the country, if you randomly pick a red card (instead of a black one) from an opaque jar you must be drafted for two years.
In pre-modern Thailand, “corvée labor” or “ไพร่”(Phrai) was the main source of recruitment for the army. The first law mandating military conscription was the Act on Military Service of 2448 B.E. (1905), established in the reign of King Rama V to ensure recruitment after the abolition of forced labor. Conscription today is just a modern version of this system. Salaries are low and cases of abuse abound: maltreatment, sexual harassment, homophobia, physical and verbal assaults, and mysterious deaths among draftees have all been documented in recent years.
Historically, conscription has not only harmed individuals, it has also harmed the practice of democracy in Thailand. Since the Siamese Revolution of 1932, when the transition from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy began, there have been 13 coups in Thailandled by the Royal Thai Armed Forces, and conscriptedsoldiers were always instrumental throughout them. Moreover, military education in Thailand offers a curriculum that instills values – such as patriarchy, homophobia, seniority, and patronage – that threaten democracy.
The Politics of Resisting Conscription
Many people have disagreed with and resisted the draft since it was first legalized in Thailand. Nonetheless, most comply with it due to the fear of legal consequences. And, in many cases, people with high social status orenough money avoid conscription by exploiting legal loopholes, such as studying abroad or working for thegovernment in one position or another. Many declare their opposition covertly, but only a small number of individuals have the fortitude to openly defy the system through acts of civil disobedience. In fact, it is rare to find cases of conscientious objectors who publicly declaretheir opposition to the draft as Netiwit has been doing since he turned 18. Netiwit’s statement has been considered in this regard the first official declaration of conscientious objection in Thailand.
Thailand is about to hold a general election in May 2023. Several progressive political parties are proposing to pass an act to abolish conscription. But the military, which has always meddled with Thai politics, has indicated it will block any efforts in this direction. As a public figure, Netiwit has been bringing attention to the issue of compulsory enlistment in Thailand and the need for an open discussion on the matter among Thai citizens. And while the right to conscientious objection is not yet legally recognized in Thailand, his case could be a catalyst for changes in the country’s public opinion.
As the Royal Thai Army has already announced it will take legal action against Netiwit if he does not cooperate, the support and attention of the international community are currently more crucial than ever.
Settanant Thanakitkoses holds an undergraduate degree in Spanish and Philosophy from Chulalongkorn University. He is an activist and scholar with research interests in social justice and democracy in Thailand, political philosophy, ethics, and religion.
In collaboration with Ferenc Laczo, Eraldo Souza Dos Santos and Hannah Vos