Nightmare looms for transgender Thais at army draft

BANGKOK (Reuters) - A group of young transgender Thais sits together in women’s clothes behind rows of men, waiting for military officers to call their names and decide whether they must be drafted as soldiers.

“I was born male, so I must be here, as duty calls,” said Kanphitcha Sungsuk, 21, in a cream-colored dress, holding up a mirror to check her make-up and long black hair.

Thailand is widely seen as a paradise for gay and transgender people, but many complain of being treated as second-class citizens and the obligation to respond to the draft can be a nightmare when they turn 21.

“Most are stressed and worried that they will be undressed, stared at, or humiliated in public,” said Jetsada Taesombat, executive director of the Thai Transgender Alliance for Human Rights.

“Some are so stressed out they want to commit suicide to avoid conscription.”

Every April, Thai men who turn 21 must either volunteer to serve for six months or take their chances in a lottery, where a choice of black ticket lets them go home but a red ticket means they must serve for two years.

A conscript’s death following a beating by soldiers this week highlights the brutality of army life that many men want to avoid. Conscription can also mean serving in the south, where Muslim Malay separatists are fighting an insurgency.

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Exemptions are made for those who are physically or mentally incapable. They are also made for trangender women, but only if they can prove that they are not faking it.

A doctor takes them to a private room, or behind a wall, to see whether they have breasts or have undergone a sex change.

Those with physical alterations, who show “gender identity disorder”, are exempt from the draft and need never return, but those who have not undergone such changes must return for up to two more years, unless an army hospital certifies they have the “disorder”.

Transgender women say the reference to a disorder stigmatizes them, although the army has softened its description from the previous “permanent mental disorder” and says it has improved the way they are treated.

“The army is instructed to treat and respect transgender women as women,” said Lieutenant Colonel Ongard Jamdee, who is in charge of a recruitment center in Pasi Charoen, Bangkok.

Transgender women figure on television, in beauty pageants and at hair salons and cosmetics counters in Thailand. But they cannot change the gender designation on their identity papers, despite a 2015 law against gender-based discrimination.

Some transgender women told Reuters they had been told to leave women’s toilets so as to not “frighten” women.

“Society looks on and thinks we are accepted, but it’s actually not so,” said Khwan Suphalak, 23, adding that hotels had barred her entry over her gender. “We’re always treated differently.”

Additional reporting by Jutarat Skulpichetrat; Writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Matthew Tostevin; and Clarence Fernandez