BOOK REVIEW Arm thy neighbor Militia Redux by Desmond Ball and David Scott
Reviewed by Bertil Lintner
Thailand has for decades armed a bewildering array of paramilitary forces and
volunteer corps, which were set up mainly during the height of the Cold War in
the 1950s to secure the country's borders against possible communist
They grew in importance when the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) resorted to
armed struggle against the government in 1965
and left-wing forces were making headway in the region.
Today, Thailand's communist insurgency is history, but the old paramilitary
units remain, with a new purpose: to help maintain security along the
still-volatile Thailand-Myanmar border, which includes fighting drug and human
trafficking - and, more controversially, to suppress an increasingly active and
militant insurgent movement in the Muslim-dominated southern provinces of
Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.
Desmond Ball and David Scott Mathieson, two Australian academics, have written
the first in-depth English-language account of these forces, and Militia Redux
is an impressively detailed study of a little-known but significant subject in
Thai history and contemporary politics. They track the origin of Thailand's
paramilitary forces back to the Wild Tiger Corps, which was established by King
Vajiravuth in 1911.
Then the king's personal force, it became a nationwide phenomenon when on
February 4, 1954, the Thai Parliament passed the Defense Corps Act. Six days
later, the present Thai king, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, signed the act,
and now February 10 is celebrated annually as the founding date of what is
commonly known as Or Sor (also transliterated Aw Saw), the Thai abbreviation
for asa samak, or "volunteers". The proper full name of the force is
Kong Asa Raksa Dindaen, or the Volunteer Defense Corps.
It is not a huge force - the approved strength for 2006 was 15,727 men and
women - and not as numerous as other volunteer forces such as Self-Defense
Volunteers, or Chor Ror Bor (Chaw Raw Baw), which are particularly active in
the southern provinces. But Or Sor is in many respects the core of the
paramilitary militias, and perhaps the most professional.
They played an important role in the crucial battle of the CPT's military
headquarters at Khao Khaw, Phetchabun province, in February-March 1981, which
marked the beginning of the end of communist insurgency in Thailand, and they
were active along the eastern border in the 1980s, when hundreds of thousands
of Cambodian refugees were encamped on Thai soil.
And, like most of Thailand's paramilitary forces, they were initially trained
and partly funded by the US Central Intelligence Agency. But Or Sor was never
as controversial as some of the extreme right-wing forces, which became
notorious for their brutality in the 1970s. Among those were the Red Gaurs,
Krathing Daeng (the authors misspell it Kraching Daeng), which spearheaded the
attack on student protesters in Bangkok's Thammasat University on October 6,
1976, or the Nawaphon, which also played a leading part on the bloody events on
Ball and Mathieson examine the history of Thai paramilitarism, the management
of the forces, and their various roles and activities, and they do it well. The
book is factual and analytical with lots of explanatory tables and
illustrations; one of the few mistakes this reader came across was the
misidentification of the location of Krue Se Mosque, where 32 militants were
killed on April 28, 2004, as Yala province; it is in Pattani province. And
despite allegations of human-rights abuses, the authors point out that most Or
Sor members are residents of the local areas, and therefore familiar with their
localities, giving them "a natural advantage over government officials in
An interesting detail is that the Thai king's autistic grandson, Khun Poom
Jensen, enlisted into Or Sor ranks in Nakhon Pathom province when he turned 20
in 2003. He had actually wanted to join the regular army, but his disability
made this impractical, and he is quoted saying he was "very happy" to join the
Or Sor. Khun Poom was killed by the tsunami on December 26, 2004, while
vacationing with his mother, Princess Ubol Ratana Rajakanya, at a seaside
resort north of Phuket. After his death, a small shrine was maintained in his
honor for 100 days outside the Or Sor headquarters on Bangkok's Phaholyohtin
Road. His portrait still hangs there, and his membership in the Or Sor gave the
force a royal link that it would otherwise not have.
Some may argue that the authors overemphasize the revival of paramilitarism in
Thailand. After all, Or Sor actually had 5,000 more members in 1999 that it has
today. But it is in the south that the largest, and still growing, units are
active. In May 2003, there were 654 Or Sor in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat; in
February 2004, it was announced that the total would be brought up to 1,900.
And that is also where most abuses appear to be taking place, not only by Or
Sor but even more so by the Chor Ror Bor, which is dominated by Buddhists in a
predominantly Muslim area.
The authors' conclusion is that Thailand should abolish its paramilitary
forces, and let the professional, and better trained and equipped regular army
take care of security in all sensitive areas. The return of paramilitarism is
not in tune with the modern society that Thailand purports to be, and volunteer
forces such as Or Sor can be easily exploited by local thugs and strongmen, the
They also suggest that Thailand's Ministry of Interior - which controls the Or
Sor - should be dissolved to "allow the propagation of alternative forms of
real provincial, district and village democracy, with much greater
decentralization of administrative authority". Some advanced Western countries
- among them Sweden - have replaced their interior ministries with more focused
governmental departments in charge of local administration, education and
But is Thailand ready for such a bold reform? Suchit Bunbongkarn, a prominent
Thai academic and legal expert who wrote a foreword to this book, disagrees by
arguing that the Ministry of Interior serves "as a bridge between the central
administration and democratic local governments". He also writes that this book
is "well worth reading, and for those interested in political violence,
paramilitarism, internal security, and democratic development in Thailand, it
must not be missed".
This reviewer could not agree more.
Militia Redux: Or Sor and the Revival of Paramilitarism in Thailand by
Desmond Ball and David Scott Mathieson. White Lotus Ltd. Bangkok 2007. Price
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic
Review. He is currently a writer with Asia-Pacific Media Services.