I was a high school student at the time of Thailand’s 2014 coup d’état. I turned 18 on September 10, 2014, and as I considered the sources of my society’s problems, I saw forced conscripted military service as one of them, violating the freedom and rights of Thai people. Thus, I published a statement that I would not serve in the military.
Since July 10, 2022, I have been ordained as a monk, studying and practicing Buddhism with a strong faith in the teachings of the Buddha. Without coercion to the service, I wish to continue studying and practicing Buddhism as much as I desire. However, I do not want to use the privilege of being a monk to escape military service or give the impression that I am running away and using the temple as a shield, which would contradict my statement from almost nine years ago.
Therefore, I have decided to disrobe and return to household life, willingly struggling in the legal process to uphold my beliefs and guide my Thai society toward a path of peace, nonviolence, and no military conscription.
However, before disrobing, I must complete some unfinished tasks. I need to pass the Pali examination and will be retaking one subject on April 15–16, which I devoted time to study for. After that, I will ask for some preparation time before disrobing, which I plan to do before the end of April. During this very short period, I want to maintain myself as a Buddhist monk and ask for the kindness of everyone to give me a chance to cultivate the peaceful serenity that suits a monk who follows the noble life.
Tricycle sent Netiwit several questions about his life and plans. His answers are below.
What was your childhood like? Where did you grow up, and what was your experience with Buddhism as a young person? I grew up in a middle-class family in Samut Prakarn Province, near Bangkok. Despite my parents’ divorce when I was 6 years old and the financial insecurity we faced following the 1997 Tom Yum King crisis, my family was diverse in terms of beliefs and interests. My grandmother, whom I lived with between the ages of 10 and 16, was a vegetarian and a Mahayana Buddhist who ran her own vegetarian shop. As a child, I was rebellious and skeptical of many beliefs, including those of my family. I felt that I needed to find my own meaning and purpose in life. My father, who was interested in politics, helped shape my interest in the subject, and I eventually discovered Buddhism and the political history of my country.
I found Sulak Sivaraksa’s writings to be especially compelling and became involved with his magazine, Pacharayasala, which means “Great Teacher,” and which had been in existence for over forty years. I developed a strong interest in the connection between spirituality and political awareness, which led me to pursue a path of morality, idealism, and critical thinking. As the youngest editor of Sulak’s magazine, I have gained valuable experience and insights into Buddhism, politics, and the importance of critical thinking.
Tell us about your time as a monk. What led you to be a monk, and what have you been studying? Before becoming a monk, I was already critical of mainstream education. As a student in high school, I witnessed oppression, such as strict rules about hairstyles, and I became vocal about it. My objection to the enforcement of “traditional” hairstyles comes from the Kalama Sutta, where the Buddha teaches that we don’t need to believe something just because it is tradition. Some friends and I founded the student group called TERA (Thailand Education Revolution Alliance) to collect petitions across the country to change the rule. We even debated about it on a popular news show and gained national attention. Later on, I cofounded The Education for Liberation of Siam, which focused more broadly on creating education that aims to liberate student minds and be critical of authoritarianism in society, not just school rules. After finishing my high school education, I took a gap year to study at Deer Park Institute in Bir, India. During this time, I learned English, and also about practitioners of Vajrayana and the suffering of Tibetans in exile. It was also during this time that the 2014 coup happened in Thailand, disrupting our hopes for change.
The military regime imposed strict rules and brainwashed people to admire the military, and I witnessed this firsthand when I returned from India. I became involved in opposing the Junta while studying at Chulalongkorn University, known as the bastion of conservatism. My friends and I demanded the student union act on behalf of the students to fight for democratic change. During this time, I also learned about the Hong Kong Protest and became friends with Joshua Wong, whom I highly admired as a devout Christian fighting for social justice. We tried to create an international translation activism before the Milk Tea Alliance became popular. I voiced the need to change the culture in my university, and we succeeded in many ways, but sometimes we faced setbacks. However, I won the administrative court case and later became the president of the student union. Recently, the university punished me when I invited the leader of the student protest to speak at a freshman orientation. As a result, I lost my position once again.
The many struggles I faced often made me feel sad and lost. In September of 2014, on my 18th birthday, a few months after the coup, I declared myself a conscientious objector because I knew that I would have to face military service in the future, which is this year (2023). I understand that this might be one of the hardest things in my life, so I am preparing myself and finding more peace and encouragement in my heart. I always believe that if politics or society could change, individuals also have to change. We must cultivate virtue and find more peace and less want in our hearts. I consider Buddhism my native religion, and I have always read about it. But now, as a monk, I can study and practice it more deeply. I should mention that Joshua Wong, my friend and ally in social justice, has inspired me with his faith to seek more meaning and purpose in my life.
What are the laws around military service? Are monks not exempt from service? Do the Buddhist authorities not protest? In Thailand, it is stated in the constitution that every male must serve in the military for two years. However, in reality, there are various ways to avoid military service due to the poor conditions, humiliations, degradations, and even deaths from bullying that occur in military camps. For instance, some students in high school can apply for the Territorial Defense Student program, which requires attending military training once a week for three years and staying in camps for five to seven days per year. However, this program requires purchasing its uniforms and enduring military indoctrination, making it similar to serving in the military. I empathize with poor and ordinary students who do not have the financial means to join the Territorial Defense Student program and therefore have to serve in the military.
Additionally, it is heartbreaking to see videos of monks having to draw a card from a box—if they receive a black card, they are exempt; a red card means they have to serve in the military for two years. Many monks appear heartbroken and cry in these situations. However, there is a way for monks to apply to avoid military service if they have completed certain degrees of moral education within the monk system. If they remain in the monkhood until 30 years old, they will also be allowed to not serve in the military. I have this privilege myself, but I have decided not to use it. Instead, I believe that every person in Thailand, regardless of their financial status or social status, should have the right to live according to their own beliefs and values, such as nonviolence. I have made the decision to refuse military service and will go to trial and will face the penalties.
What is the danger you face if you do not comply with the authorities? Refusing military service comes with significant risks. Firstly, I would be considered to have violated Thai law, which would lead to me losing my monk status. I do not want to put my temple under any pressure from the state due to my actions. Additionally, I would face consequences for my unlawful actions, including potential jail time of up to three years. While I am unsure how the court would rule in my case, I am willing to face the truth and the consequences of my decision.
Is there anything else we should know about your situation and Thai militarism? Thailand’s history is deeply intertwined with militarism, with a long history of military coups and a powerful military-industrial complex that permeates all aspects of society. The conscription process is particularly troubling, as it is riddled with corruption, allowing the rich to avoid service while the poor are forced to go and often face harsh conditions. As an advocate for nonviolence, I have seen firsthand the devastating effects of militarization in my country. This is why I believe that the abolition of conscription is crucial to ensure that every individual is granted the dignity and respect they deserve. By taking a stand against mandatory military service, I hope to inspire others to challenge the status quo and work toward creating a more compassionate and just society. My situation is not unique: many young people in Thailand are faced with the same dilemma of having to choose between serving in the military and maintaining their beliefs and dignity.
As a Buddhist, I believe that my actions are in line with the principle of abhayadana, the “gift of fearlessness,” which means giving others the confidence and security they need to live without fear. By refusing to comply with mandatory military service, I am offering an alternative vision of a more compassionate society. Though this decision carries risks and potential consequences, I believe that the pursuit of justice and peace is worth it. I hope that my actions will inspire others to question the militaristic culture in Thailand, and around the world, and to seek nonviolent solutions to conflicts. Together, we can create a better future for all.