ABOVE: That’s me, on the far right, geeking out with my friends a couple years back. Although I’m pretty into experiencing military life in video games and cosplay, the thought of serving for two years was pretty incomprehensible to my life. Photo: Andy Hsu
For many, turning 21 is a rite of passage or thing to celebrate. For me, it’s been a looming nightmare. A mounting dread has grown as the date grew nearer, for with it came the, um, proud honor of (maybe) serving my country.
Here’s how it works: In the first week of April of every year, the military holds a special lottery where you get to “draw” your own fate. If you draw a black card, then you’re free – have a nice life. But if you get the red card, well then you’re screwed, I mean privileged, to spend the next one to two years, depending if you’ve graduated from college or not, in one of the three services (Army, Navy, Air Force). However if you’re still studying or have medical problems then you’re (disappointingly) recused from the lottery for another year.
And so on a sweltering day this past weekend, Judgement Day had arrived.
Judgment Day Arrives
On the morning of April 3, I woke up especially early since I couldn’t properly sleep due to my nervous anxiety about my future. It was 8am when I arrived at the place of appointed destiny: the Wat Pak Bor School in On Nut. Dozens of people were already sitting row by row like trained soldiers, like they’d already been recruited and taught the secret handshake, maybe won some medals together. I thought to myself, “Shit, am I late? Did they already call my name?” So after half an hour of not knowing what was going on, I decided decisively to just kind of wait around and see what happened.
Fast forward another hour or so, and they finally called my name. My dad, who had came as moral support, was in the toilet while they were calling my name. So they’re calling my name, and I’m looking around for my dad, but my moral support is gone, answering the call of nature. So I told the old man next to me to kindly inform my dad I’ve gone in to the “screening area.”
Now, prior to entering the “screening area,” I’d spent a good half hour observing what goes down there. I was really observant of what is expected because I have this constant terrible fear of filling in official documents in Thai. Yes, I am a Thai-born Thai but my handwriting is equivalent to that of a first-grader. In the screening area, I noted a four-step process before getting the okay to enter the lottery that involved filling in zero documents. So, now barefoot, I confidently marched in, thinking to myself “Man I got this, I already know what they’re going to do.”
A plethora of sandals block around the entrance of the Wat Kratum Sue Pla School, the same school Mario Maurer was called to.
Walking the Walk
As I walked in, a soldier with flashy Ray Bans pointed to the line and told me to get in it. Trying to be helpful, I told him in Thai, “I already know,” as again I’d totally studied everything in advance.
That didn’t go over well. He gave me this weird look, as if I’d disrespected him somehow, which was certainly a possibility given my lackluster Thai. I queued for about five minutes and handed my documents over to a less cool-looking soldier who seemed in charge of gazing at them meaningfully. He jokingly asked me, “So do you want to join the army, navy or air force?”
Being super stressed out and in no mood for joining in the “camaraderie” or “esprit de corps” or any of those noble traditions, I blurted out “No, I’m just here for the lottery!”
Potential draftees line up to to hand in their documents to be inspected.
This conversation went back and forth for awhile until another soldier dude ended it by silently wrapping some masking tape around my wrist on which he wrote down the number “528.”
He then ordered me to take off my shirt and pointed to another area. Not wanting to push my luck, I quietly obeyed, as I wanted to quickly get out of there. Ten minutes later, a creepy looking soldier walked up and told us all to stand up. He went down the line one-by-one, making us do weird, questionably scientific routines like waving our arms around and touching our toes to “check” on our health.
When it was finally my turn, he told me to do the same exact routine except this time he asked me, “How bad is your eyesight?”
“It’s around 5.00 or 6.00,” I proudly told him, thinking if I had really bad eyesight I would somehow be shamefully/happily exempted.
“Oh, okay, it’s not that bad then,” he said, demolishing my hope.
My next stop was another chance to make an easy exit. The next soldier measured your height and the size of your chest. If you were shorter than 160 centimeters, then you were free to go. I walked up to the height measuring apparatus and after some fumbling the soldier yelled out, “169!”
Missing any opportunity to fail out, it was time to join the group of guys who chose to enter the lottery, while those brave souls who chose to willfully enlist gathered in another section. Ten minutes passed and Ray Bans appeared to tell us to come back at 2pm for the lottery.
That was around 11am, and as I walked out of the screening area I saw dozens of people still sweating it out in line to enter. It was going to be a long day.
Two and a half hours passed and I returned to previously waiting area. Turned out some people showed up really late for registration, so the lottery was postponed another hour and a half. Figures. As time passed, my neuroses increased, and I began to grow anxious about my future. Sgt. Sunglasses finally called our names, and we ordered to sit in neat rows again.
A commanding officer gives a briefing about how the lottery will commence.
It was lottery time. They explained to us that due to a high number of volunteer enlistments (thanks, guys!), there were only 14 red cards while the other 220 were black. I quickly began doing the math in my head, trying to calculate the odds I’d get red-carded. The first guy was called up to choose a card. He walked up to the box with his hand raised to show he wasn’t palming a black card and reached in.
“BLACK!” a soldier yelled out. The guy was relieved enough he started doing an odd little dance to express his excitement. I wish I could say that I was happy for him too, but he hurt my odds.
A young man reaches into the box, hoping to draw a black card.
About 70 guys in, only four had drawn red cards for the honor of serving Thailand’s elite armed forces. Seeing their faces only made me more anxious as my turn came up.
“NATCHA DURONGPHANT!” the soldier yelled out, so I stood up and started walking toward the box, holding my right hand in the air as was expected. Without hesitation I picked a random card at the top and handed it to the soldier who has opening them. I involuntarily shut my eyes for a moment before looking at the soldier holding the card. He made this cheeky smile at me, the one he only gave to people who pulled red, and my heart fell into my stomach.
After the longest several seconds of my life, he yelled out, “BLACK!”
At that moment, I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders and possibly one of the happiest feelings of my life. Before anything could change, I rushed over to the desk where they handed me an official document stating that my service would not be needed in the military.
So after a total 10 hours, I was free. I have questions about the fairness of the process and the fundamental premise of compulsory service. Does this kind of system really need to exist in the first place? The military lottery left me confused as to why these kind of conscription methods still exist.
Photos: Karanbir Sachdev