Connect to share and comment

Thailand military: the lovely conscripts

Thailand’s military struggles with a flood of transgender draftees.

Transgender Thailand Military Conscription
A Thai transsexual listens to speeches as thousands of Red Shirt supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra take over the streets of Bangkok's main shopping district on April 4, 2010. (Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

BANGKOK, Thailand — It was conscription day in the outskirts of Bangkok. One by one, a young man’s name would crackle over the loudspeaker and he would rise from the throng seated on the grass and strip for inspection.

Hiding amidst the 1,000-person crowd was Prempreeda Pramoj Na Ayutthaya, auburn locks hanging at her shoulders, face obscured by an umbrella held by her mother. When her name was called, she squeezed her mom’s hand and stood, legs quivering, to step through the sea of stunned boys.

“I felt panic. Maybe at first they thought I was some guy’s sister who’d come for support,” Prempreeda said. “But when I walked to the front, everyone realized, ‘Oh, that’s not a girl!’ and made a huge noise.”

“I think of that day like a bad dream,” Prempreeda said.

Of the half million young Thai men facing military conscription lottery each year, most fear being drafted into grunthood. Best case scenario: Two years in a dull outpost. Worst case: Patrolling the southern Thai-Malay borderlands, where Islamic insurgents are notorious for beheading troops.

But few fear the draft more than Thailand’s transgender “kathoeys.” Genetically male, mentally female, they regard conscription as a threat to their very being. Buzzing off a kathoey’s long locks and forcing her to go soldiering in the sun, Prempreeda said, is the cruelest of punishments.

“No transgender would ever want to be in the army,” Prempreeda said. “They’ll cut your hair off. They’ll destroy your femininity. You will do everything you can to avoid it.”

No one knows exactly how many male-born Thais live as women, though academics acknowledge the obvious: the phenomenon is unusually widespread in Thailand.

In the United States, studies suggest that only about 1 in 2,500 men live their lives as women. But in Thailand, according to a University of Hong Kong researcher, as many as 1 in 165 Thai males become kathoeys.

Thailand’s outsized transgender population presents a dilemma for the military, which considers kathoeys eligible for conscription at 21 like every other male citizen.

In practice, long-haired, perfumed draftees with hormone-induced breasts are very rarely drafted. Instead, they are dismissed as unfit for service, often for having “malformed chests.”

The most common reason for dismissal, however, is also the more damning: “mental disorder.” Worse yet is “permanent insanity,” a ruling written into the permanent record of kathoey Samart Meecharoen in 2006.

The 26-year-old Bangkok receptionist, who goes by the Thai nickname “Sweetwater,” is an accidental activist. After the “insane” label wrecked a promising job interview, she sued the Ministry of Defense with the help of a gay rights organization. Most employers force male prospects to submit a document proving they’ve stood for the national draft.

“Don’t they understand this ruins our lives?” said Samart, who is still awaiting her lawsuit’s outcome. “It’s stuck to our record. Even if we’re opening a bank account, or trying to get a visa to some foreign country, people see that I’m supposedly insane.”

Though Thailand’s Defense Ministry can still legally dismiss kathoey conscripts as mentally ill, Samart’s case has pressured the military into refraining from the most career-damaging classifications, at least in recent years.

A September memorandum obtained by GlobalPost reveals that senior military officials are now recommending a new all-purpose phrase to reject transgender draftees. Translated, it reads, “This person’s body is not consistent with their birth sex.”

The decision is not final. But many kathoeys are rooting for this phrasing. Those already judged “insane” or “deformed” are also hoping to scrub unflattering rulings from their permanent records.

These days, teenage kathoeys fearing conscription will likely turn to, the largest Thai-language message board on transgender life. More than a place to swap make-up tips and emoticon-laced heartbreak rants, the site offers an online strategy session for prospective draftees.

Among the message board’s topics: “Went for draft already? Please tell our girls there’s nothing to fear!” and, among the most popular, “Will I have to take my shirt off?” Tales abound of officers asking kathoeys to strip down in front of giggling crowds during public inspections.

“Dress very beautifully, but politely,” wrote user DonutSheHot, a self-proclaimed kathoey who has already withstood the draft. “Nothing too slutty, though. That’s risky.”