International Crisis Group
Asia Report N°140
23 October 2007
Thailand’s increasing reliance on paramilitary forces and civilian militias is hindering efforts to tackle the insurgency in its majority Muslim southern provinces. A bewildering array of paramilitary organisations works alongside and often in parallel to the regular military and police. There are advantages to using irregular forces. They are quicker and cheaper to train and deploy and tend to have more flexible command structures. Locally recruited volunteers have better local knowledge than troops brought in from outside. But they are also inadequately trained and equipped, confuse already difficult command and control arrangements and appear in some cases to make communal tensions worse. While paramilitaries are likely to continue to be deployed in the South, the government should move toward consolidating security arrangements and, in the longer term, concentrate on improving its regular security forces.
Paramilitary organisations and village militias have played significant roles in policing and counter-insurgency throughout Thai history, particularly against communist and separatist guerrillas during the 1970s and 1980s. Over the last decade, these forces have taken on new roles, from controlling refugee camps on the border with Myanmar/ Burma to prosecuting the “war on drugs” in 2003. But the most significant expansion has been for the suppression of separatist violence in the South.
The army has tripled the strength of the paramilitary “ranger” force (Thahan Phran) in the South since violence surged in 2004, despite its well-deserved reputation for brutality and corruption. It has made some reforms, particularly in screening recruits, since the 1980s and on the whole is a more professional force than twenty years ago, but serious problems with discipline and human rights abuses remain.
The military’s key rationale for recruiting new ranger units in the South was to create a local force familiar with the terrain, language and culture. In practice, however, no more than 30 per cent of new recruits are local Malay Muslims. The overwhelming majority of southern Muslims continue to fear and mistrust the rangers. Several suspected extrajudicial killings in 2007 have confirmed their suspicions and played into the hands of militant propagandists. Insurgents are also believed to have carried out attacks dressed in ranger uniforms, in order to whip up anti-state sentiment.
The interior ministry has its own paramilitary force, the Or Sor (Volunteer Defence Corps). Known to be fiercely loyal to its ministry bosses, though less problematic than the rangers, it is widely viewed as the armed enforcer of the ministry’s district officers.
The largest armed force in the South – after a massive expansion in 2004-2005 – is a civilian militia, the Village Defence Volunteers (Chor Ror Bor). Though senior government and military officials have questioned their effectiveness, the Chor Ror Bor still constitute the main form of security in most villages. Poorly trained, isolated and vulnerable, they are often unable to protect themselves and their weapons, let alone their communities. Militants have stolen the guns of hundreds since 2004. Some Chor Ror Bor have also turned their guns on fellow villagers when local security incidents have gone beyond control. Yet a plan was announced in July 2007 to recruit an additional 7,000 by the end of 2009.
Despite the evident problems with existing village militias, the Royal Aide-de-Camp department, under Queen Sirikit’s direction, established a parallel volunteer scheme, the Village Protection Force (Or Ror Bor) in September 2004. Its volunteers receive ten- to fifteen-days military training, an improvement on the Chor Ror Bor’s three days, but hardly adequate for confrontations with well-armed and organised militants. Unlike the Chor Ror Bor militia, whose make-up broadly reflects the demographic balance of the region, the Or Ror Bor is almost exclusively Buddhist, often stationed in temple compounds and tasked with protecting Buddhist communities.
The Buddhist minority in the South feels increasingly threatened. Muslim militants have attempted to drive Buddhists from several areas. Officials, civilians and even monks have been targeted in gruesome killings apparently designed to provoke retaliation. Many Buddhists, frustrated with the government’s failure to provide adequate protection, are taking matters into their own hands. Private militias are being established throughout the South, with varying degrees of official sanction and support.
The proliferation of poorly trained, loosely supervised militias in a volatile conflict in which civilians are the main victims confuses command and control arrangements, weakens accountability and heightens the risk of wider communal violence. However, the inability of the regular army to cope with the security threat posed by the Muslim separatist militants suggests that Thailand will continue to use paramilitaries for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the government should:
review the effectiveness of each paramilitary and militia force as the first step toward consolidating security arrangements;
provide additional military and humanitarian law training and supervision to the Thahan Phran “rangers”, to improve discipline and curb abuses;
work to phase out, disarm and disband the various village militias, whose impact on security is negligible;
tighten controls on guns and gun licenses;
prevent the operation of private sectarian militias, whose emergence is an extremely worrying trend, and bring their sponsors within the government and security forces into line; and
shift emphasis over time and concentrate on improving the professionalism and strength of its regular military and police rather than arming untrained and jumpy civilians.