BANGKOK -- Thailand's powerful military has been rattled by a blow to its prestige from the weakest link under its command -- tens of thousands of new recruits, who have chosen to return to civilian life rather than remain soldiers another year.
Gen. Apirat Kongsompong, the army chief, has raised the alarm about an impending troop shortage next month, after only 5,460 new conscripts signed on to remain enlisted out of the 42,000 to be discharged at the end of April.
The commander has "instructed the Army Training Command to look at creating incentives to keep more conscripts in military service," the Bangkok Post reported.
The low troop numbers come after the military postponed its annual mid-April draft owing to the coronavirus pandemic.
Every year at that time, over 100,000 Thai men aged 21 years are conscripted to swell the army's ranks for two years. The next intake is likely in July, according to military sources, to ensure the country maintains its numbers: 360,850 active military members and 200,000 in reserve forces.
These large troop numbers have been pivotal for the army to flex its muscle as the country's most dominant political institution.
Military observers say this mass exodus will compound growing scrutiny towards the military. Allegations have ranged from allegations of corruption and shady business ventures to its history of turning its guns on Thai citizens in the absence of an external threat for decades.
The conditions facing recruits, who have been portrayed as victims of abuse by human rights groups and the local media, have touched a nerve among the public. A late March report by Amnesty International, the global rights campaigner, exposed physical assaults, sexual abuse and verbal humiliation rampant in the barracks housing conscripts.
"New conscripts undergoing basic training may be slapped, beaten and kicked by their commanders ...or forced to eat using their mouth only, 'like dogs,'" Amnesty said in its 47-page report. "Conscripts were targeted collectively and individually for sexual abuse."
The report, which was based on interviews with 26 former and serving conscripted soldiers and commanders, placed blame on "the full chain of command for this culture of violence and degradation."
"Three to four people would faint every day," one conscript said. "At times sticks, batons, combat boots or the butts of guns were used to beat conscripts."
The military's top brass have resisted such scrutiny in the same way they dismissed an opposition-led push in the legislature to end the draft. Conscription should be replaced by a volunteer military to build "highly trained professional soldiers", said members of the now-dissolved Future Forward Party, calling for an end to the draft in a bill last year.
Parliamentarians of the former FFP, who now belong to the newly formed Move Forward Party, had campaigned on the same issue to tap youth voters at the March 2019 general elections.
However, military insiders say the increasing attention on conscripts has put senior officers in a bind because of a prevailing culture of servitude in the ranks. "Many generals have three soldiers at home for their personal use: to wash their car, cut their lawn and throw out the garbage," said a former officer. "The new soldiers are treated as 'military maids'."
Analysts say the thorny issue of conscripts has brought to relief a deeper problem for the military, which is propping up the current government led by former general Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. His government succeeded a military junta, which he led, that grabbed power through a coup in May 2014 to overthrow an elected government. That putsch was the military's 13th coup since absolute monarchy ended in Thailand in 1932.
"The army still functions with a Cold War mentality and it has a strong conservative culture that resists the calls for change," said Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok-based think tank. "The commanders still think that by offering some incentives they can convince young Thais to stay on in the military, rather than shrinking the numbers and building a modern force along the lines of a smart army."
Other observers contend that the generals will persevere with the annual conscription because it serves as an excuse for the military to directly engage with the public and exert control. "Conscription is the only way that the military can regularly maintain direct contact with the public and influence them about the importance of the military in society," said a Thai military intelligence operative. "They don't want to lose it; otherwise they will have to be limited to the barracks and only interact with the public during natural disasters or other occasional crisis."
According to Paul Chambers, a Thai national security expert at Naruesuan University, located in the north of the country, the steadily increasing defense budget since the 2006 military coup has also made conscripts indispensable. After all, the armed forces received more funds because they have had an "enormous voice over national budgetary allocations" since the 2006 coup, he said.
The defense budget has risen from 115 billion baht in 2007 to 233 billion baht ($7.2 billion) for 2020, falling slightly lower than the allocation for the finance ministry, which was allocated 249 billion baht for the current fiscal year.
One reason for the increase in military spending, Chambers explains, has been "to expand the size of the armed forces, and that required increasing soldiers' salaries in order to ensure a positive retention rate as a carrot to entice people to stay." And signs of an about-turn by new recruits would erode the military's rational for a bloated defense budget, he said.
"The annual intake is important and enticing soldiers to stay in the military is necessary."