The debate over conscription is not about war readiness but military perpetuation

Trump is threatening war. Ayatollah Khamenei is vowing severe revenge. Thailand seems unlikely to be affected. But amidst the worldwide spectre of doom, the Thai Twitterverse has begun taking sides over Thailand’s readiness for war – specifically, the effectiveness of Thailand’s system of national conscription. 

“Imagine if Iran were Thailand,” said one commentator, “and Thailand had ended conscription. Tomorrow, we would have to begin enlisting soldiers to fight. I’m sure that would be enough time…”

Others responded with incredulity – “even with the conscripts we have now, do you think we would be ready to fight? The conscripts cut wood, are drivers, clean cars, sweep the floors – the thought that we would win a war is hilarious.” 

The sense of fatalism among ordinary Thais may have given way to levity, but the debate mirrors a much more serious one had among top army chiefs and political figures back in November of last year when a draft bill was proposed by the Future Forward Party to repeal conscription laws. 

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan were categorical in their support for military conscription, citing the need for the armed forces to maintain readiness in the case of conflict. According to Prawit, “if conscription is abolished and something dangerous happens to Thailand, there won’t be enough soldiers. Who would be responsible then?” 

“conscription has become a tool for maintaining class structure. The structure is institutionally tiered to reward those with higher education – something that has been historically correlated with wealth”

Jasmine Chia

Against the backdrop of modern conflict where drone strikes, technological espionage and unconventional warfare takes centre stage, this claim seems more than a little out of touch.

In the twentieth century alone, the marriage of technology and strategy brought about multiple revolutions in how humans conduct war: World War II saw the introduction of Blitzkrieg, strategic bombardment, and beyond visual sight warfare, while the Cold War saw the further development of atomic weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The twenty-first century is the century of surrogate warfare – whether it is using airpower, drones, cyber-weaponry, private military companies or locally armed non-state actors, the burden of warfare is being increasingly externalised from the standing armies of the nation-state. Conscription can no longer be excused in the service of war readiness, if the wars fought today require much more than standing armies.

In other ways, of course, war hasn’t changed. Clausewitz’s canonical injunction that “war is merely a continuation of policy by other means” continues to ring true with the escalation of the Iran-America conflict. In Thailand, however, it seems the reverse has always been at play – policy is a continuation of military power by other means.

This is what stands at the heart of the staunch support for the conscription policy: it remains a critical instrument for maintaining the military-dominated power structure in Thailand, in three key ways.

First, conscription is an important tool for instilling the state narrative of history and current events for its conscripts. Conscription was a major component of King Rama VI’s push to create a sense of unified “Thai” nationalism in a nation that has always had strong, separate geographic identities. It was and still is a way to extend the state ideology of “Nation, Religion, King” from the centre to the periphery.

Second, it is a tool for recruiting manpower to sustain the military’s expanded role in political life. It has never mattered that conscripts aren’t trained for war, because they were never meant to fight in them – they, like many branches of the military, perform essentially civilian duties in a manner that has been normalised by the Thai public. In the Super Poll in which 82% of respondents voted that there was no better alternative to conscription when ensuring “national security”, there was not a single mention of the military’s role in defending the country. Support for conscription revolved around activities like responding to natural disasters or involvement in rural development – all activities that can and should be performed by civilian government departments.

Finally, conscription has become a tool for maintaining class structure. The structure is institutionally tiered to reward those with higher education – something that has been historically correlated with wealth – by providing multiple loopholes and allowing for shorter terms of service. Beyond this, it is no secret that the “lottery,” a colloquialism for the military draft, is a flawed process where the wealthy can just buy their way out. 

In that sense, conscription in Thailand will never become obsolete – elites always need tools to maintain their authority. 

Paradoxically, maintaining the policy of conscription will come at the cost of Thailand’s ability to respond to actual security threats. With a military that continues to focus inward, a military that expends significant resources training a standing army on a revolving door, we will continue to lack the technology, doctrine or strategy that befits a middle-income nation in the twenty-first century.

Meanwhile, the costs of conscription – low salaries, time wasted in important years in a young adult’s career – are borne by the poor, disincentivising the innovation and reform that would come from a policy that also affects those in power.

In recent years, many have argued that the system of conscription should be abolished because of its detrimental effects on the Thai populace. It is now important to consider the damage conscription does to our national security. Thailand is facing a rapidly changing security context: while its role in the Iran-America crisis is almost purely hypothetical, the likelihood of being caught in the crosshairs of the new Cold War developing between China and America is real. With external pressures growing, can Thailand afford to be weakening itself from within?

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