By Agence France-Presse
A slim young recruit wearing make-up, new fathers, nervous lovers holding hands — diverse groups of Thais flocked to a famed Bangkok shrine this week offering prayers to avoid military conscription.
Every male citizen aged 21 in Thailand must participate in the country’s massive annual draft, which starts in April and sees an estimated 100,000 enlisted for up to two years.
It is a sensitive subject in military-run Thailand, and politicians opposing the junta in last month’s election suggested ending the mandatory practice.
While some draftees volunteer, others enter a lottery system where young men pluck colored cards out of a box and wait nervously as a soldier reveals either a red slip — meaning they have been drafted — or the coveted black.
For young men dreading military service, the shrine of Ya Nak (“Grandmother Nak”) in the capital’s Wat Mahabut temple has become a popular pilgrimage.
Represented by a golden statue of a woman with long black hair sitting cross-legged with a baby, Ya Nak is surrounded by gifts of flowers, toy cars, and traditional Thai clothing.
Legend has it that while her husband was away in military service she died alone during childbirth, a story turned into a hit Thai movie.
Like many Thais who grew up knowing the folklore, university student Pasakorn Raksri traveled five hours from Kanchanaburi province to pray to Ya Nak.
The 21-year-old, who presents herself as a woman and has shoulder-length hair and wears make-up, does not want to be enlisted.
“One of my concerns is my sexual appearance as it is not exactly what the army is looking for,” Pasakorn told AFP.
Thais who have transitioned are exempt from conscription but those who have not undergone surgery have been subjected to harassment when they are drafted into the military, rights groups say.
Others pray to Ya Nak because they have financial commitments and are the sole breadwinner.
“I am the only one who works in the family,” said Thawatchai Saisawang, a father of one young girl.
Factory worker Utain Kamrit was returning to the shrine with gratitude.
The 22-year-old had prayed to Ya Nak and said there was a single black card remaining in a box of reds during his enlistment.
“I was thinking about her, asking her to help me,” he said, recalling the moments before he pulled the black card.
These tension-filled sessions often leave young men bursting into tears of relief when they get an exemption, while some faint from the stress.
“First thing that came into my mind was, I have to return here to fulfill my promise (to give thanks),” Utain told AFP.