Reserve Act Opens 12 Million to Summary Military Conscription

Men line up at a Khon Kaen conscription center on April 7, 2014.

BANGKOK — A law granting the military authority to order 300,000 men into service annually was recently passed by the junta-appointed legislature with little public debate and no opposition beyond an emerging online campaign against it.

An online petition launched Tuesday against the Armed Forces Reserve Act, passed recently by the military-stacked interim legislature, said that exposing 12 million men to summary conscription would lead to social and economic instability.

“If the draft comes into effect, it will bring a lot more economical and social problems,” read the petition. “The 12 million men who can be summoned already have their own professions which are part of developing the country too in some way.”

The new law empowers the Defense Ministry to call up to 2.5 percent of the 12 million reserve forces for service, and refusing to serve would be punishable by four years in jail. In Thailand, all men eligible to serve are considered in reserve once they register at 18 until they age out at 30. Reserves include those who were students in the territorial defense program, a usual mechanism for avoiding conscription.

The law was passed without opposition by 192 members of the NLA, with four members abstaining. It would allow the conscripts to be summoned for a variety of purposes such as helping with disaster relief, enforcing martial law, responding to emergency situations and preparing for war.

When he briefed the interim parliament on the plan in July, former army chief Udomdet Sitabutr said the impact would be negligible, as people would only need to serve for two months.

"There shouldn't be any problem, because mobilizing the reserve force won’t take much time,” he said. “We will only summon 2.5 percent of the entire reserve force to place in military units, and they will train for only two months."

The bill’s chief drafter, Gen. Singsuk Singprai described several scenarios to iLaw under which men may be called to serve. He said they could be summoned for a one-day “readiness inspection;” added to the force for two weeks of “mobilization training;” or called in for ongoing emergency or martial law situations.

The law requires employers to pay minimum wage while their employees are away for military training or face a 20,000 baht fine. Those who did not work for a company, such as freelance workers, would receive no compensation.

The law will come into effect once it is signed by the king and published in the Royal Gazette.

Gen. Singsuk said the law would give the nation, for the first time in six decades, clear regulations governing its reserves.

On the internet, one of the few forums of dissent, the petition launched Tuesday has garnered more than 8,000 signatures and comments critical of the militarization of society.

“It is wrong to force everyone to be a soldier,” it stressed.

In an article published Tuesday, democracy activist Pakawadee Weerapaspong questioned the bill’s necessity at a time when Thailand is not confronted with enemies or war, but how to compete economically with its neighbors under the ASEAN Economic Community.

“Considering all factors , the Armed Forces Reserve Act is likely to have more disadvantages than the advantages,” she wrote. “And it might eventually lead Thailand to be a failed state.”

Opinions opposing and supporting the bill were found on the kingdom’s biggest webboard, Pantip. Though some questioned the transparency of how the 300,000 would be selected, others deemed it a duty of Thai men to serve their country.

“I am willing to be called up for training,” wrote Pantip user Purisak. “Why are you trying to escape the duty of Thai citizens?”