When an all-female army of journalists, dressed as schoolgirls, burst into laughter at a “lunch party” with the Thailand's military junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha at Government House on January 8, it became the talk of the town.
Commentators took to social media to lament the wretched state of Thai media. A senior Thai journalist, Pravit Rojanapuruk, labelled the journalists as “lapdogs” in a column in the progressive daily Khaosod English.
This scene came after a poll in December conducted by the National Statistical Office. The poll came up with the stunning figure of 99.3% of Thais being happy with the performance of the junta, which took power in a 2014 coup against an elected government. The approval rating was later “corrected” to 98.6%.
Whatever credibility this poll holds, it is clear there is a layer of student activists who have maintained their unhappiness with the military rule.
Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal is a 19-year-old high school student who is one of the most outstanding, given his age and level of defiance. He is the first person to publicly declare himself a conscientious objector in Thailand, where the military is a source of fortune, status and near-absolute power.
Having started to mull the question over at 16, Netiwit eventually declared himself a conscientious objector on September 5, 2014, his 18th birthday.
“Military rule has dominated Thai society, not only now but also for a long time,” Netiwit's declaration read. “They controlled text books to promote nationalism and respect of the army. We know they want to make Thailand a military state.”
Netiwit has not limited his reasons to support for “non-violence” or pacifism. Nor has he compromised his criticism of the Thai military or Buddhism. “I cannot say I am a Buddhist in a country, full of violence and where Human Rights violations occur” he stated, adding “I am a conscientious man.”
Thailand is one of more than 30 countries that have conscription. Based on the Military Service Act of 1954, all male citizens are obliged to serve in the military at 21. Generally about 60% of Thailand's 300,000 forces are voluntary professional soldiers, with the rest conscripts.
Thailand also has more serving officers than the United States, 1750 officers compared to the US's fewer than 1000 for a military several times larger.
Pakawadee Veerapaspong, the independent writer and activist based in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, told me that despite Thailand facing 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.”
Pakawadee has been one of a few outspoken critics advocating “military reform”. She supports abolishing conscription.
Military coups make comeback
She said up until a 2006 coup, in which the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted, people thought military coups were obsolete in Thai politics. She pointed to the 1992 pro-democracy uprising against military rule as a source for the wide belief that the military had been expelled from the politics and returned to their barracks.
“Because of this belief, people didn't try to reform many aspects of the military,” she said. “That's why we have to live in this nightmare of dictatorship again and again.”
Since the 2014 coup, the junta has taken various measures in the name of a “reform” process. The military have summoned activists, journalists and political opponents for “attitude adjustment” or “talks”. The abduction of dissidents has included the prominent student activist Sirawith Seritiwat.
Sirawith was abducted by a group of uniformed and masked men in front of Tammasat University on January 20. Khaosod English reported that he was slapped, verbally abused and blindfolded. He was asked questions, such as: “Why are you talking with journalists?”
The next day, a junta spokesperson admitted they were behind his abduction and released him.
Less than a week later, however, another student activist was abducted by men believed to be plain clothed military officers. A recent report from Thai Lawyers for Human Rights suggested that from May 22, 2014, when the military regime staged its coup, to September 30 last year, 1408 civilians were tried in military courts. There is no sign of the military reforming itself. Rather, its powers are strengthened by a recently passed bill.
In November, the junta passed a new bill called the Reserved Forces Act. The junta-appointed legislature passed the bill with four abstentions. Other than an online petition, there was no outcry of debate.
Under the new law, 12 million male citizens aged between 18 and 40 are subject to a random draft for two months military training regardless of their past duty. The 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 showed me A4 sized posters on which they wrote: “Thai men are not slaves of the military”.
They said they were considering a campaign of public protests. Among the students was 19-year-old Nithi Sankhawasi. He has just completed Territorial Defence Training, or locally known as “Ror Dor”, for three years during high school. Ror Dor is military training for army reserve force students. It is, most of all, an optional way to not be drafted when you turn 21.
“Every Friday we would go to the military camp,” Nithi said. “We learn about the old Thai history, but never contemporary issues. We also learn about the King, religion (Buddhism) and the military, besides occasional military training.
“You have to buy shirts and boots just like soldiers. Everyone on Ror Dor training has to pay for themselves. All the businesses [providing the needed products] belong to military.” To Nithi, this is corruption.
“I felt it was a waste of time. Teenage years are a precious time of your life, isn't it?”
Saengchai Law, a 16-year-old student, has completed his first year of Ror Dor. He said out of 17 male students in his class, 13 were taking part in the Ror Dor program.
But Netiwit, Thailand's first conscientious objector has refused to take part in Ror Dor. As a result, he is subject to conscription in two years.
“I have problems with Ror Dor also,” said Netiwit. He raised the issue of military training for those underage. “Schools want students to obey like soldiers,” he said. “They want us to get a fear of the military. So when coups happen, there is little resistance and most are OK with it.”
Under the military regime, student reserve forces seem more obligated to follow commands. On February 4, the army chief announced student reserve forces would be deployed at polling stations for an upcoming referendum over the junta-drafted constitution. The second draft by the junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) came out at the end of January amid heavy criticism it would empower the aristocracy.
Concern is growing that the junta want to create an intimidating atmosphere for voters. Three days later, Colonel Winthai Suwaree denied the announcement by the army chief, saying the “army had a policy to encourage these students to take part as volunteers”.
Since his declaration, Netiwit has received more than a thousand messages. These 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 have been the scene of a renewed insurgency since January 2004 that has claimed more than 6000 lives.
Last December, the Internal Security Operation Command said security personnel in the south would be cut this year by more than 1400 personnel to 69,295. This number includes conscript soldiers, although the percentage has not been revealed. Many conscript soldiers are from the poverty-stricken north-east, where an anti-coup movement has established a foothold.
The Nation reported that the chief of the 26th Army Military circle, Major-General Dech-udom Nicharat, “urged young men to report to authorities to serve their country”. The report suggested that 900 21-year-olds avoided registering for military conscription in the north-eastern province of Buriram last year.
The punishment is up to three years in jail. Those who evade the newly passed Reserved Forces Act would face an even harsher sentence of four years.
“I can't say I am ready to go to jail as of now,” said Netiwit. “I hope there would be an alternative way I can do. But if no choice, I might have to go.”
His father once talked of “paying money” to avoid military service. But Netiwit opposed this because it is a corrupt solution. “The poor can't pay the money. It's not fair, not just.” Netiwit said his family is lower middle class and respect his decision.
Netiwit, who said he is interested in the self-described “democratic socialist” US presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, is not aggressive in advocating the abolition of conscription. He thinks “too radical change” would not work in Thailand. “Step by step” he said.
For the time being, he supports setting up an “alternative civilian service”, which has been practiced in several countries including Switzerland. “Also,” he said, “a small army would be more effective. But the Thai army is too big and against the Thai people. They killed many of them.”
The idea of a “conscientious objector” is new for Thai society. Pakawadee noted: “The fear of prosecution by military court, [and] the beating and bullying by officers once recruited in the barracks is widespread.” She has emphasised that “much support is needed for Netiwit when the time comes for his conscription age”.