A young man from Udon chooses suicide rather than enter military service. The military draft law favors those with an education. Every year are stories of torture and death of new recruits. Isn’t it time to reconsider the military draft?
By Donlawat Sunsuk
A small road runs along the railway in the Nong Lek community, not far from the center of Udon Thani city. The inside of a rented house is decorated in black. A woman is tidying up after holding a funeral for her 21-years-old son, “Pod” (not his real name), who committed suicui a day before he was to be inducted into the army at a military base camp of the Royal Thai Second Army. He had gotten “a red card” in the military draft lottery just last month, so he was facing two years of service, given his educational status.
Rattana Promsiridet, 56 years old, the mother of the dead young man, is sitting and talking with relatives. She gets up to open the door and get some water for a guest.
“It’s a bad time,” she says. “When the COVID pandemic spread, everything was turned off. Even funerals couldn’t be arranged. I haven’t been able to sell sandal flowers [used in funerals or other ceremonies]. This is my family’s only income. Nobody’s making any orders. My son’s left so suddenly,” says his mother, in tears.
She tells me more about her son. I ask her the reason. Why had her son decided to take his own life just one day before he was to report to the military camp. She says, slowly, “That night, that night before he was going to report himself to the army, he asked me, ‘Please sleep downstairs and stay with me,’ as tomorrow he was going to the camp. I didn’t suspect anything.”
“He’d already prepared his things to report to the camp, but he wasn’t sure whether it had been postponed, after listening to the news. Then, he told me to take him to the district [where the camp was]. He said if he had to go, he’d take a bus to the camp. If he didn’t go, he’d come back home.”
Although Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Prayut Chan-o-cha had ordered a postponement for the reporting of draftees from May 1 to July 1, so Pod wasn’t sure. He hadn’t followed the news any postponement and there wasn’t any information from the authorities.
An unknown motivation for suicide
A farewell note was near the body. It contained a short message: “I apologize. Please forgive me. May everyone take care of my mother. Don’t cry or get ordained for my benefit.”
This act of urgent departure, with no prior sign, causes Pod’s mother distress, when asked about her son’s motivation.
“He never told me anything,” Rattana says. “I don’t know what his motivation was. He was a quiet person. He rarely spoke his feelings.”
“He used to say he wanted to be a soldier,” she says. “It was what his father had hoped before his death in 2017. His father had been a soldier. He wanted his son to serve the nation. He thought his son would get an education and become a professional soldier.”
The day after the suicide, some media has reported that Pod’s suicide was a result of depression.
“After his father died,” Rattana continues, Pod “had become a quiet person. He usually stayed home. I had told him to go to see a doctor, to find out whether he suffered from depression. But he said he wasn’t depressed and didn’t need to be examined.”
Rattana has thought it over and over again. She doesn’t know what drove her son to suicide. When pressed again, she says only, “There was no way out.”
Unequal military service
Pod’s father’s death left behind a large family—his wife, two daughters, three grandchildren—and a son, Pod. As the only son, he was responsible for taking care of the family. Pod helped his mother in her work. His death is another blow to this family.
“After he finished middle school, he didn’t study any further,” Rattana says. “He helped me working at home, stayed with me, and helped me to lift things. Sometimes, he cooked for us. It was on him that we pinned our future.”
“When he got the red card, I was worried. I thought I’d have a hard life without him. But then I thought it might have been a good time for him to make money for the family. And I also hoped he’d be able to get an education and become a soldier.”
“Sometimes I wanted him to be a soldier but sometimes I didn’t,” she says, still torn by the thought. “It seemed like he wouldn’t be with us anymore. He had told me once that he had wanted to be trained in the Thai Reserve Officer Training Corps School. In fact, I had wanted him to do it but with our poor economic state there was no money to buy the uniform. It was so expensive.”
All males must serve in the military. But the current regulations of the military service make educational level a basis for inequality in favor of those with a bachelor’s degree. Under the lottery method, those who have finished college will serve in the military for one year. If instead they apply to be in the military, they only have to serve for six months.
On the other hand, those who have finished only high school have a higher obligation. If they choose the lottery method, they must serve for two years. If they apply, they have to serve for a year.
For those young men who have taken military courses, there is a rule that if they successfully finish their military coursework in the first year, they will be obliged to serve for one year and six months through the lottery method. If applying, they will serve for just one year. For those who finish the second year of military courses and who use the lottery method, they serve for one year. If they apply, they will serve only six months. Those who have completed the third year of courses can register for a certificate which allows them to avoid military service completely.
Military law in need of revision
Prof. Surachat Bamrungsuk has commented on this issue in a TICJ report. He admits that the rules have been used for a long time and are out of date. When the rules were written, the military had a need for intellectuals to do other duties so their obligation was reduced. These rules he says were used in the past and did not create class problems.
But now there are many ways that these rules can be addressed. For example, these rules allow those taking these courses to evade military service altogether. Prof. Surachat says that it must be admitted that almost everyone in university takes the military courses, the Thai Reserve Officer Training Corps School. So that doesn’t solve the problem.
Prof. Surachat concludes, “So I agree that the law is an old one that needs to be revised.”
A fear of entering the military
This year, the government has made voluntary online military registration with a special offer that would allow applicants to become professional soldiers. But only 4,805 applicants were submitted, out of the total number of military personnel required in 2021. There is currently a total number of 97,558 officers, an increase of approximately 5,000 from 2020.
“Pod wanted to apply to be an enlisted soldier, like his father,” Pod’s mother recalls. “But he changed his mind and told me that he would use the lottery method instead. He wanted to realize his own destiny.”
Thinking back, she’s not sure if her son had wanted to be a soldier or not. He never told her, never expressed anything. But it is possible that he might have been afraid of going into the life of a soldier because he went out so rarely. He would have been so homesick.
The military camp, a place to practice torture?
Every year, there’s news of deaths in military camps. Last year, for instance, there was a story of a relative who inquired about the death of a soldier in a Khon Kaen camp. At the time, the relative was told that they needed 45 days to wait for the medical result. Another case was of a soldier who had fled from the camp. When he was caught, he was tied up and then died in the camp.
In 2017, the National Human Rights Commission issued a report that investigated human rights violations on two cases of torture in military camps. The first involved the punishment of a soldier at the Cavalry Center who had been beaten on his back with rattan and whose body had been kicked on November 14, 2016. The second was the case of Yuthkinan Boonniam who was beaten to death during detention at the 45th Army Prison in Surat Thani Province on April 1, 2017.
Then-National Human Rights CommissionerAngkhana Neelaphaijit said the first case was a punishment inconsistent with the principles of human rights protections. It was a violation of the right and freedom in life and body of persons according to the 2017 Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand and a violation of the Convention against the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
In the second case, the torture of the soldier was carried out by inmates along with officers at the 45th Army Prison, causing serious injury and later his death. These actions were offenses under Sections 289, 290, and 291 of the Criminal Code, and a violation of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand of 2017. They were also violations of the Convention against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as the United Nations’ Minimum Requirement for the Treatment of Inmates (Mandela Rule), which is an act of violation of the right and freedom of life and body.
A son never to return, a military draft for the poor
“I don’t know what to do,” Rattana says sadly. “Since his father passed away a few years ago, he was the only one left. This house is rented. In this situation of COVID, there is no work for us.”
Her family now has to take care of the three grandchildren along with her daughters. She has never thought that her only son, who she believed would be the backbone of the family, would go away so suddenly.
As to the military draft, she says, “There can be one, or it can be scraped. We don’t have the right to choose if there are people with no income who become soldiers to get a salary. If people are in school learning, it [the draft] is considered as a lost opportunity.”
Read Thai version here อัตวินิบาตกรรมก่อนไปเป็นทหารเกณฑ์ : ความตายหลังได้ใบแดงบอกอะไรเรา ?