Military and monarchy: trip report from a visit to Thailand

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Hannah visited Thailand as part of the Right to Refuse to Kill Programme's work to support conscientious objection, and movements against conscription.

Memorials to Bhumibol Adulyadej seen in train stations and public spacesMemorials to Bhumibol Adulyadej seen in train stations and public spacesWhen I arrived in Bangkok in November, many people were in mourning Bhumibol Adulyadej - the king who died on 13th October after seven decades on the throne. I travelled there along with Jungmin Choi and Yongsuk Lee, two members of World Without War (WRI's affiliate in Korea).

This period of mourning was evident in peoples' homes, in public spaces, and in the very atmosphere of cities and town. Festivals were cancelled or curtailed, most people still dressing in black (or wearing black ribbons) over a month after his death, and memorials and commemorative videos found in bus stations, temples, and the metro.

Alongside this respect for the monarch lies a coercive tradition: Thailand's strict lèse-majesté laws (prohibiting criticism of the royal family) inhibit freedom of speech, and have been used against activists as a weapon. Dissent is a social taboo, as well as illegal under Article 112 of the Penal Code. Although the lèse-majesté laws only apply to the King, Queen, Royal Heir (now Rama X), and Regent, they have been widely used for suppression, even for those who mock the King’s favourite dog, Thong Daeng (Copper), and the Crown Prince’s poodle Foo Foo, who was elevated to the status of Air Marshal, complete with uniform. Many are arrested for innocuous Facebook comments and hyperlinks.

Since the most recent coup of 2014, a military government has been in place, and their rhetoric reinforces their position as protector and champion of the monarchy. So it was an interesting time to visit Thailand for the first time!

No provision for conscientious objectors

There is conscription to the military-aged for men in Thailand, and no provision for conscientious objectors (COs). There no substitute civilian service, and currently no movements working for the rights of COs to be respected.

We were initially invited to Thailand by Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, who plans to refuse military service when he is called up in a few years time. Watch a short interview with Netiwit talking about conscription and his conscientious objection here.

Although Puey Ungphakorn – an economist later exiled and branded a socialist – had tried to introduce the right of conscientious objection into the Constitution of 1974, it was unsuccessful because the conservative figures suggested it was part of a communist threat. Until now, the concept of conscientious objection to military service is not well known in Thailand.

Netiwit is working to raise awareness of conscientious objection (have a look at Netiwit's Facebook page, which already has 14 times the number of followers as WRI's, at 61,950!), and prepare for his own call up when he finishes his studies in a few years time. In reality, we believe many people evade the draft: they simply disappear, and are generally not pursued. But they do not make their opposition to the military public, nor encourage others to consider refusing military service. The impacts of doing so could be severe – including long custodial sentences if they are accused of flouting lèse-majesté laws, and international solidarity, as well as local support, will be important to support a nascent group of pacifist COs.

Also see a video of Netiwit's declaration of conscientious objection here.

Compulsory military service?

In many countries, 'obligatory military service' is in reality applied haphazardly, contingent on status and power. Talking with Thai activists, I was struck by the frequency of this assertion: conscription is class-based, and well-connected middle-class and richer families do not expect their to have to sons to go, because - especially in rural areas - you can pay to make sure you don't get called up.

This is made easier by the ballot system. All young men, at the age of 21, are called up to a recruitment centre, and pick red or black cards: drawing a red card – which happens to one third of those drafted - means you are expected to go to the military. Men and women may volunteer from the age of 18.

As well as young men, trans* women are also sent draft papers and expected to appear at recruitment centres. They are particularly at risk of abuse and harassment on these occasions, prompting the Thai Transgender Alliance for Human Rights (TAHR) to issue guidelines for transwomen when they are called up. TAHR have also published guidelines for military officers on how to treat trans* women (known as katoeys) when they are called up. Watch a 9-minute documentary, 'Draft Day', which follows several transwomen in Thailand as they go through the experience of military recruitment here.

Conscription lasts two years, and there are often reports of bullying and brutal punishments within the barracks (see e.g. New Recruit Beaten to Death As Draft Season Begins, 4 April 2016).

To avoid enlistment, until recently it has been possible to opt for three years military training in high school (like a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps), but the law on this has recently changed, and opting for this training does not preclude you from being called up.

'Attitude adjustment'

The Thai military is 300,000+ strong, with almost as many reserves. Unlike many other nations that maintain conscription, Thailand does not have a neighbour that it names as a threat and enemy to justify, and provide motivation, for military service.

There is a long-standing insurgency on the southern borders that has intensified in the last 12 years, and Thai troops have been engaged in armed 'peacekeeping' missions including East Timor, Sudan and Afghanistan over the past two decades. But, otherwise, Thai troops have been engaged in comparatively very few wars abroad since the Thai Army offered the US military support in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the 1960s up to 1975.

I asked many people why, therefore, the military was maintained as this high level, and was generally given two answers. One was simple: “There are a lot of Generals!” i.e., there are a lot of people benefiting personally from the continued power of the army. The second relates to the social impact of maintaining (allegedly) universal male conscription. The military government is currently employing 'attitude adjustment' punishments, which include questioning, and, 're-education' sessions (see 'How Thailand's military uses 'attitude adjustment' for dissenters', 18 April 2016). One activist described the whole process of conscription as akin to a long-term attitude adjustment programme, in which respect for military culture, beginning in primary school, including a distaste for dissent and defence of uniformity, is perpetuated. As one activist put it, “Conscription is the way to produce obedience”.

Moreover, there have been 12 coups in Thailand since the overthrow of complete monarchy in 1932, and more than a dozen more attempts. The military is an extremely powerful political force, and one that asserts much of its claim to influence in its closeness to the monarchy. They are regarded as protectors of the king, and do much to sustain this perceived alliance.

Under the junta that has been in place since the most recent putsch of May 2014, the military have also increasingly been used for other purposes. In March this year, officers were granted policing powers to detain suspects for up to a week without charge for being suspected of a range of different crimes. They don't need a warrant to do so. The Bangkok Post called this an 'affront to the justice system'.

In addition to media censorship on all levels, the military regime has also imposed stringent restrictions on the right to assembly. Given its intimacy with the royal family, the military also threatens those they label subversive with royal insult defamation laws, coming with custodial sentences of up to fifteen years. This is a risk for Netiwit and others who speak out against conscription in Thailand. Though not facing lèse-majesté laws, the conscientious objector movement in Korea well understands ways to encourage criticism in a culture where dissent is discouraged, and the experience of World Without War was of great interest to the activists that we met.

Civil society and social movements

These restrictions, and those imposed by the former elected government in 2010, have not been entirely successful in paralysing all social movements.

We met with members of the Northern Activist Community, with nonviolence trainers working with communities trying to resist extractive industries on their land, and those involved in the creative 'Red Sunday' movement (see Janjira Sombatpoonsiri's paper 'Playful Subversion: Red Sunday’s Nonviolent Activism in Thailand’s Post-2010 Crackdown'), who used a variety of creative tactics to make public their criticism of the crackdown on civil society – culminating in a massacre of 90 people – in May 2010, and indeed included many survivors of these attacks.

Meeting nonviolence trainers in BangkokMeeting nonviolence trainers in Bangkok

We also spoke with members of the Nonviolent Conflict Workshop, a discussion group on nonviolence and the works of Gene Sharp, who were glad to have a copy of the Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns. If you are Bangkok-based and would like to join them, you can get in touch through their Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/216497795157208/

In Chiang Mai, the main city in northern Thailand, I also visited the incredible International Women's Partnership for Peace and Justice (IWP), a grassroots feminist group working on 'sustainable strategies for social change'. They integrate feminism, nonviolent action and spiritual practice.

Building a retreat space for activists in Chiang Dao, at the base of the mountains, with the International Women's PartnershipBuilding a retreat space for activists in Chiang Dao, at the base of the mountains, with the International Women's PartnershipTheir current project in Chiang Dao is developing a safe retreat space where individual activists can come on their own to rest, recover, relax, reflect, and rejuvenate, surrounded by a supportive community and ample time for solitude in nature. They are hosting a series of natural building workshops for women to build the centre. IWP have already built one adobe house, and are currently holding a course to build a common space to be used as a dining and living room. I was really pleased to be able to help lay a floor!

Working together

The trip was a chance to plan future work between the WRI network and activists working for social change in Thailand. These will include:

  • Planning solidarity for Netiwit and other future anti-conscription activists, by linking up with the WRI network active on conscientious objection and against youth militarisation and recruitment, sharing tactics from other movements, with the assistance of international mechanisms to support COs, and sharing information with solidarity activists into the future, especially during detentions detentions when they inevitably happen as resistance grows
  • Linking many other activists we met with existing WRI resources and networks. This will hopefully include the translation of the Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns into Thai, and linking up nonviolence trainers with networks of trainers in Asia and beyond. There will be opportunities also for Thai activists to feed into our recent project on constructive programmes
  • Building connections with World Without War, who support conscientious objectors in the Republic of Korea, as well as working against war profiteers and the militarisation of young people. Perhaps it will be the beginning of a WRI regional network in Asia!

From L-R: Yongsuk, Hannah, Sulak Sivaraksa (a scholar of nonviolence and founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists), Netiwit and JungminFrom L-R: Yongsuk, Hannah, Sulak Sivaraksa (a scholar of nonviolence and founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists), Netiwit and Jungmin

I'm very thankful to everyone who met with us, showed us great hospitality, and shared their insights about militarism in Thailand. I look forward to working with you all in future to build alternatives to militarism!

Hannah Brock, 8 December 2016