By Andrew Biggs
Three Weeks Ago
I haven’t seen Tee and his mother for more than three years, ever since Tee came begging for a loan to help with a down payment on a pick-up truck.
What a difference three years makes. He has transformed from pimply 17-year-old to strapping, albeit pock-marked, 20-year-old. His mother explains how much the two have missed me and how they are both well.
“With the exception of one thing,” she says.
Tee looks at me with eyes that resemble a cross between a doe and a hawk.
“I need to borrow 20,000 Baht,” he says.
That was quick. Exactly two minutes have transpired since the two have entered my office, and already I’m in danger of dropping twenty grand. Should I shoo them out now before it hits fifty?
“I must register for the draft,” he says. “In two weeks I have to front up to the satsadee.”
I am unfamiliar with this word. As I listen to Tee, I take my focus away from a particularly deep pockmark to the left of his nose, in the shape of a comma, and quietly punch the word into Google Translate.
Satsadee. Military Recruiting Officer.
Basically, Tee has to put his hand into a metal box in two weeks. If he draws out a red lot, he is drafted. If it’s black, he’s free.
Every April, Thai men aged 21 years and above must register for the draft, which is two years’ service. This being Thailand there are two ways of getting out of it.
The first is that boys in Years 9 to 12 at high school can attend military school once a week, exempting them from the draw.
And the second way?
“I pay the recruiting officer 30,000 Baht,” says Tee. “Under the table. In that way I am assured of a black card My family has scraped together 10,000 Baht but we are still short.”
“Wait a minute,” I say. “This can’t be true. The military launched a coup because of the corrupt system. They are overseeing the writing of a new constitution to eradicate corruption. They’re about to reveal 100 corrupt government officials. Why would they themselves allow such a system to exist?”
Silence from Tee and his mother.
“And why so expensive?” I ask. “The last time I helped a kid like this it was only 8,000 Baht.”
“And when was that, Khun Andrew?” Mother asks.
“1998,” I reply. Clearly inflation extends to graft as well.
“In my district it’s 30,000 Baht to ensure I don’t draw a red lot,” says Tee. “Half for the doctors, and half for the officer in charge of the draw.”
Tee explains that on the day he will have start with a medical examination, then do the draw. It is in one of those two scenarios that Tee will get his freedom.
“Either the doctor will say I have a disease or I draw a black lot,” says Tee.
“Why not just pay the doctor 15,000 and go with the disease? That way you save 15,000,” I suggest.
“It’s not as simple as that,” says Tee. It never is.
“Why not just volunteer to be a soldier?” I suggest. “It’s a great career here in Thailand, especially now they’re in power indefinitely. The money’s not great, but look at all the generals. They live in mansions!”
Tee’s mother coughed.
“Tee’s just getting his life back together again after that … unfortunate accident. He’s got a good job as a messenger, plus he has a new girlfriend and they’re going to get married.”
I look at the two of them.
“Two thousand baht for ten months,” says Tee, reading my mind.
I let out a big sigh.
“Oh alright,” I say.
Tee’s face breaks into a huge smile, all but obliterating the pockmark in the shape of a comma.
Two Weeks LaterThe army has announced this year it requires 99,373 recruits from a total of 344,254 young men. Tee would have had a one in three chance of drawing a red lot. If I were Tee, I’d save myself the 30,000 baht and take my chances, but Tee, or perhaps Tee’s fiancé, is having none of that.
In his district the odds are not so good. His district requires 132 recruits, and there are 273 young men who must draw lots. If not for the payment, Tee would have a 50:50 chance of being drafted.
The news of draft day captures the nation’s attention just prior to Songkran.
There is always a singer or actor who fronts up. This year it is heartthrob Mario Maurer, who like everybody else must take off his shirt for the doctors, and everybody swoons — with the exception of his Chinese fans, who claim he’s gotten fat. Mario draws a black lot.
There’s a star footballer too, Thirasin Daengdar, who clearly took my advice and volunteered for service in the air force, cementing his position as national hero.
And of course there were the numerous transgendered guys who were rejected for looking too much like girls but hey, at least they fronted up.
Somewhere amid the rest of the 344,000-odd young men was Tee, having handed a wad of cash to his uncle in the military, who then passed it onto the local recruiting officer, who then tutored him the night before on how to draw a black lot.
Life gets busy for me and I forget about Tee. Until yesterday.
Tee is calling from a phone booth in his home province.
“I drew black!” he chortles. “I drew black!”
“So you should have,” I answer.
The process, it turns out, was quite ingenious.
The red lots are made of cardboard. The black lots are made of much thinner paper. The recruiting officer teaches Tee (and three others) to close their eyes and differentiate between the two by rubbing them with their fingers.
The black and red lots are rolled up and inserted into drinking straws. Tee has to close his eyes and weigh up the straws to find the lighter ones. By law he has 30 seconds to move his hand around the metal box before he has to draw one out.
“The trick is to concentrate, and never lose your cool,” says the recruiting officer.
It took Tee all his cool to get through it, but he did.
“I’m glad I didn’t follow your advice about the doctor,” says Tee. “The chief medical officer turned up and oversaw everything, so the doctors couldn’t write me a fake disease. They just measured my chest and moved me on quickly to the draw line.”
The three boys before him had drawn out red lots. It took Tee 15 seconds to feel the one single lighter straw, and when he pulled out his hand – it was black.
“I’ve already transferred the first payment to you,” says Tee. “And I’m going to send you an invitation to my wedding. You’ll come, won’t you?”
I am happy that Tee’s future is optimistic and rosy. Let him get on with his life, free of the draft, and let the military get on with stamping out corruption. It is after all, as they repeatedly tell us, a cancer.