Army recruitment day: Lottery no one wants to win

Just before the Buddhist year ends in Thailand and the new one begins in craziness of the water festival (we will report on that one, too), a lottery that no one wants to win is organized across the country.

For ten days in April, thousands of Thai boys face the possibility that one of their worst nightmares comes through – they can be drafted into the army and possibly sent to the deep south of the country where security forces fight the bloody conflict.

The draft itself is a typical Thai event – crowded, colorful and noisy. And bit crazy, too. After visiting few schools in which the draft was happening in the city centre, last Saturday I end up in Klong Toey, a notorious slum of Bangkok to witness the real drama.

Relatives and friends react as a recruit pulls out the ticket from a plastic bucket during the army draft held at a school in Klong Toey, the dockside slum area in Bangkok

Hundreds of boys, including some transgenders called katoeys or ladyboys here, showed up followed by great number of friends or relatives who will support their luck. It is a long event – it lasted the whole hot April day – and they do need support.

An entertaining Thai army captain grabbed the microphone early in the morning and did not leave it for a minute until the last of the boys knew his destiny. Loud instructions were combined with jokes and dramatic pauses just before the decision is told.

The decision is made in a lottery – every conscript, unless, for whatever strange reason, he volunteers or is capable enough to avoid the draft completely pulls out a ticket from the plastic bucket. If it’s black, he is free to go. But, if the ticket is red, the young man will be assigned to the army or navy unit and serve up to two years.

So, you can imagine the drama of the moment and disappointment/happiness after the ticked is pulled out. Hundreds of people is cheering and screaming “dam, dam!” (black in Thai language) as the young man pulls his ticked. The officer has to be even more loud to read it.

A young man celebrates after pulling the black ticket from a plastic bucket during the army draft held at a school in Klong Toey, the dockside slum area in Bangkok

Little less drama but also with some nervous moments happens before the lottery when all the boys, ladyboys included, are put through basic medical examination. Everyone is carrying some sort of medical files, often with x-ray images of an old injury under their tattooed skins hoping that would be enough to avoid the draft.

Very few are put aside and later sent home for medical reasons. In the other corner, on a separate bench with some young Buddhist monks, ladywoys waited.

Thai transgenders are not allowed to change their gender on their national identification cards and, for an unlucky few, their barely noticeable physical changes means they are sometimes conscripted for military service and often subject to abuse.

On this Saturday, all the transgenders went home happy – no one ended up drafted for the army. But, hundreds were not that lucky and will spend long time serving the powerful Thai military. Others are already buying different weapons – plastic water guns ready to celebrate the Water festival and Thai New Year.

A transgender and a Buddhist monk wait aside from other youngsters  to speak to officers during the army draft held at a school in Klong Toey, the dockside slum area in Bangkok

Here you can see more pictures and here our Reuters report on this largerly unpopular event.

    • Lejla
    • April 12th, 2013

    Great story, thanks. Shame we can’t see more pictures from the gallery as it says “Access denied”:

  1. Great photos and words Damir.

  2. 1-6-2013
    my best singel number (4-7)

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