BANGKOK: Anond Naknava nervously reached into the box and pulled out a red ticket that sealed his fate: up to two years of military service. For some young men in Thailand, conscription is literally a lottery.

“It just wasn’t my day. Everything went wrong. They mixed up my name. I had to go change it — I knew it was going to be me,” said the 21-year-old college student, who must now take a break from his studies to join the navy.

Each April, around the time of Buddhist New Year, Thailand’s armed forces launch a search for healthy men aged between 21 and 30 years old.

This year the military needs almost 100,000 new recruits. Many of the places are filled by volunteers. The rest are drafted through a lottery that many hope to lose. By law all Thai men who do not volunteer for military service must attend the conscription lottery at least once after they turn 21.

“It’s the hardship. I’m afraid of the tough life,” said Chakkrit Jitma, one of hundreds of potential recruits who turned up on a recent hot summer day at a school in Bangkok.

For parents too, there was a nervous wait to see whether their sons would be enlisted. Relatives and friends cheered when a potential recruit picked a black card, avoiding military service. “I couldn’t sleep and I prayed to Allah so that he wouldn’t be selected,” said one mother, Amornrat Sombut.

Not everyone is eligible — recruits must be physically fit, at least 1.60 meters tall and with a chest size of 76 centimetres or more.

“I do a rough check on their limbs to see if they’re bent or crooked, if they stand up straight or not, if they’re disabled or got anything missing or anything too short or too long,” said army officer Thongkham Maleesi. Also spared from serving their country are transgender ‘katoeys’, or ladyboys, such as Kridsada Kumsombat. “There are so many people and most of them are men. I’m afraid they might make fun of me,” Kridsada said.

Previously transsexuals were exempted on the grounds of a “psychological abnormality”, but that has now been replaced by a “misshapen chest”.

“If they said I’m mentally ill it doesn’t look good on my record. But this way it’s ok. I feel like we have more rights because in the past ladyboys had to be soldiers but now that’s changed,” Kridsada said.

“I’m so relieved and I really want to go home now!” The worst case scenario is a posting in Thailand’s deep south, where an insurgency waged by suspected Islamic militants has left more than 4,500 people dead over the past seven years.

Military personnel are a particular target.

“I don’t want to be a soldier. I’m afraid of being sent to the south,” said another potential recruit, Chanasorn Sodpakwan.

Thai troops were also sent out onto the streets of Bangkok a year ago to crack down on mass opposition protests. More than 90 people died, mostly civilians, in a series of clashes between soldiers and demonstrators.

Instead of letting fate decide their future, many worried parents and young men apparently attempt to dodge the draft.

Stories of bribes are common, although authorities insist they are clamping down.

“We received some reports of corruption, and now we are investigating them,” said Lieutenant Colonel Norapon Jitpanya, head of the military registrar department.

A national football player caused a stir earlier this month after writing on the social networking website Facebook that he had paid 30,000 baht ($1,000) to avoid military service. He later apologised and said he was joking.

Anybody caught trying to escape conscription faces three years in prison, followed by a stint in the army, Norapon said. At the school in Bangkok, the crowd cheered as Anond pulled out the last red card, his face turning pale as officers led him away to sign up for military service. He admitted he did not want to be a soldier, but tried to look on the bright side.

“Now I’m chosen, I’ll get a salary and I won’t be any trouble to my parents,” he said. “If others can do it then I can do it too!”—AFP