Drone Strike on Soleimani Renews Debate on Conscription

Fresh conscripts arrive at an army base in Bangkok on Nov. 1, 2019, to start their compulsory two-year service.

BANGKOK — Fresh standoff between the U.S. and Iran already caused a minor conflict in Thailand, where both pro- and anti-military figures are debating whether the country’s current defense dogmas are out of touch with the world.

In the wake of the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian top general Qasem Soleimani, some netizens are criticizing the Thai armed forces for their insistence to maintain conscription and their alleged obsession with manpower in an era of high-tech weaponry.

Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit also seized on the opportunity to renew his pledge to abolish the country’s mandatory military service in favor of highly trained professional soldiers, but a defense ministry spokesman said a draft is still necessary for national security.

“I don’t want to repeat this anymore. The army already explained all the reasons why we have to keep the conscription,” Maj. Gen. Kongcheep Tantravanich said in an interview. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to link the matter of national security with conflicts in somewhere else.”

The spokesman also dismissed allegations that the Thai armed forces are outdated and could be easily outgunned by foreign militaries.

Soldiers measure a potential draftee on April 5, 2018, in Khon Kaen province.

“It depends on who we’re comparing with,” Kongcheep said. “I think we are in a good position regionally, but if you compare to the major powers, I have to admit that we can’t be compared with them.”

Discussions among Thai netizens on the merit of conscription flared up anew following the fatal drone strike on Jan. 3. A Twitter user also posed a series of questions to Thanathorn’s Twitter account, challenging his campaign against conscription.

“From the incident that killed Iranian commander, may I ask should there’s a war approaching Thai borders tomorrow, will we be able to timely recruit soldiers?,” user @twinpole09 wrote.

The user then continued with follow-up questions like “Don’t we have to train the new recruit?” and “Do you want Thailand to simply surrender to foreign nations?”

Thanathorn replied to his online fan mail on Monday.

“Our suggestion is to replace conscripts with professional soldiers,” Thanathorn replied to the thread. “The force would be trained for two years and served for five years. They are not be trained on the battlefield.”

He also rebuked the last question, saying it’s “nonsense,” and continued with his observation of the air strike, which he said the U.S. employed advanced weaponry and professional servicemen to target Soleimani.

“If Thailand is drawn into this conflict, do you think our draftees are ready to defend our country?,” Thanthorn wrote. “The confrontation between the U.S. and Iran reinforces the idea that conscription is outdated and we have to be replaced by recruiting volunteers to modernize our armies.”

Thanathorn’s answer won support from those opposed to the military on social media, who say the status quo of modern warfare has changed.

“We’re not in colonial period anymore. Look at their weapons, they’re far more advanced than ours and they have more money and resources to spend on their troops,” user @channangyimlam1 commented.

However, some criticized Thanathorn’s idea, saying it’s too unrealistic.

“Those who’re calling for conscription to be scrapped, do you really think that those kids who are afraid of heat and hardship will really sign up?,” user @cornflakesdog comment.

Kongcheep the defense spokesman also said Thanathorn’s criticism might have an effect of damaging the army’s reputation and drawing volunteers away from the army.

“He’s doing an opposite thing of what’s he’s calling for,” he said. “Instead of using this situation as an opportunity for political stunt, why don’t we debate the issue in parliament?”