AN ATOL INVESTIGATION Religion, guns tear apart south Thailand
By Brian McCartan
NARATHIWAT and YALA, southern Thailand - The proliferation of poorly trained
and lightly controlled civilian militias in southernmost Thailand has added to
the controversy surrounding the government's counter-insurgency operations in
the restive region. As the militias become more entrenched, the risk is rising
that they will enflame already simmering communal tensions between Thai
Buddhist and Malay Muslim communities.
The main government-supported militias operating in the south are known as Chor
Ror Bor, or Village Development and Self Defense Volunteers, which are
answerable to the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and operationally come under the
military's Internal Security
Operations Command (ISOC). Under the Chor Ror Bor program, each village
has 30 volunteers who are provided by the military three days of training and
Both Buddhists and Muslims are recruited into the Chor Ror Bor,
depending on the ethnic makeup of villages. The village headman is the nominal
leader of each unit, which is tasked with guarding the village and protecting
government infrastructure and buildings, including state schools. Since the
upsurge in violence began in early 2004, the Chor Ror Bor program has
nearly doubled from 24,300 to some 47,400 armed volunteers.
Recruitment is ongoing towards the aim of providing each of the 1,580 villages
in the insurgency hit provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala with a unit of
30 volunteers. More controversial are the Or Ror Bor units, or Village
Protection Volunteers, which are not answerable directly to the Ministry of
Interior or 4th Army Division, which is responsible for security in the south,
but rather come under the Royal Aide de Camp Department, a unit of the Defense
Ministry responsible for the protection of the royal family.
The Or Ror Bor were founded by Her Majesty Queen Sirikit in September
2004 in response to an attack on a Buddhist village in Narathiwat province,
where she was residing at the time at her Taksin Ratchanives palace, according
to a 2007 International Crisis Group report. Queen Sirikit gave a notable
speech on November 16, 2004, in which she suggested Thai Buddhists in the three
southern border provinces learn how to shoot, according to respected Thai
academic Duncan McCargo in an article published in February in The Journal of
Southeast Asia Studies.
Training for the initial 1,000 Or Ror Bor recruits in Narathiwat was
provided by Deputy Royal Aide de Camp General Naphol Boonthap, a former 2nd
Army Division commander and assistant army commander who retired from the armed
forces in 2001. Since then, the units have grown to include 24,763 volunteers
comprised of 13 battalions and eight companies, according to research conducted
by Non-Violence International, a non-governmental organization promoting
non-violent methods of social and political change.
The monitoring group estimates that each village will have at least 50 civilian
security personnel comprised of five village security assistants, five Ministry
of Interior paramilitaries, 30 Chor Ror Bor and 20 Or Ror Bor personnel.
This, according to Non-Violence International figures, will raise the total
number of civilians in government-organized militia programs to as high as
102,500 this year.
Human-rights workers in the region and security analysts monitoring the
conflict believe that to bring the security situation under control, the
government must begin to rein in the militias and enforce better controls on
civilian access to weapons. By facilitating the growth of civilian militias,
many of which have little direct oversight, they say the government risks an
explosion of full-blown communal violence that to date has been avoided in the
On the ground, the proliferation of predominantly Buddhist militias is raising
tensions. Perceptions are growing among Malay Muslims that the top levels of
government have provided at least tacit support for Buddhist vigilante gangs -
which operate separately from the militias - that have been accused of
conducting violent reprisals against Muslim villagers for insurgent attacks.
"We see all these checkpoints ... [but when] someone shoots between them they
get away. Where can they go if there are those checkpoints? ... Sometimes they
get drunk and go out and shoot up someplace. My friend's home was shot up. The
next morning, the army reported that there was a shootout," said a Muslim
businessman based in Narathiwat.
Crash course Or Ror Bor militia recruits initially receive seven days of training
with five-day follow-up sessions twice a year. Armed with 15 shotguns which are
kept by village headmen, units can also purchase their own weapons. Some
militia members are known to be armed with pistols, rifles and even sub-machine
Although the training is longer than that given to the more formal Chor Ror Bor,
watchdog groups such as ICG say it is still inadequate to instill the skills
and discipline necessary to deal with the complex situation in the south. ICG
also says the program further complicates an already confusing chain of command
in the south.
Or Ror Bor recruitment has been done almost exclusively among Buddhists
and units are often based in Buddhist temple compounds or explicitly ordered to
protect Buddhist communities. A recent report by Non-Violence International
cites a Thai general serving with the Or Ror Bor saying that only
Buddhists are recruited to the group since they can be "trusted". Buddhists
make up around 20% of the population in the Thailand's southernmost three
provinces, which is predominantly Malay Muslim.
As reported in the Thai-language Daily News, at a press conference in July
2005, General Naphol said, "The queen told them [villagers in Narathiwat] that
as they were born here and their ancestors earned their livelihoods here, they
should not migrate elsewhere. They should find ways to protect themselves ...
The queen often said that everyone has a right to defend himself in the face of
danger. The training is not aimed at encouraging people to arm themselves to
attack others. There is no intention to divide people who have different
But the growing number of independent Buddhist militias that apparently operate
outside of the state security apparatus are having just that effect, according
to locals. These militias are known to be poorly organized and often consist of
villagers who have acquired their own weapons to protect themselves against
insurgent attacks. One of these predominantly Buddhist groups, known as Ruam
Thai or "Thai United", has gained an estimated 8,000 recruits, of which
only a couple of hundred are known to be Muslim.
Ruam Thai was founded in 2005 by police Colonel Phitak Ladkaew and other
police officers in Yala and is given two days of training.
In a September 2007 press interview, Phitak described the Ruam Thai as a
"citizens' self-defense corps" and claimed that membership was open to Muslims.
The group is based largely in Yala, southern Pattani, two districts of
Narathiwat and in four insurgency affected districts of Songkhla province.
According to a police officer close to the group, training is still provided by
police who he says "control" the organization.
Ruam Thai members have been widely accused of vigilante-style attacks,
including shootings and grenade attacks against Muslim civilians in Yaha
district of Yala province and the Saba Yoi district of Songkhla province in
2007 in Songkhla, which resulted in senior police orders to transfer Colonel
Phitak. However, that order was rescinded after protests by local Buddhists.
The growing membership to various semi-official and unofficial militia groups
arises from feelings of distrust and insecurity among Buddhist villagers in the
region who often feel government security forces have failed to provide
adequate protection against insurgent attacks. Local villagers point to
sustained deadly attacks on security forces, which villagers say shows the
military and police cannot even protect themselves.
Many in the restive region feel under siege from a nameless, faceless Muslim
insurgency that has often resorted to brutal methods in its killings of
Buddhists, including beheadings and violent murdering of Buddhist monks and
state officials. A black-and-white view has emerged among many Buddhists here
that Muslims are the sole perpetrators of the violence, despite statistics that
show more Muslims have been killed in the shadowy conflict.
Many Buddhists avoid entering Muslim villages and neighborhoods altogether, or
race through them at high speed with their car windows rolled up and doors
locked, as this correspondent did while being driven recently by an off-duty
paramilitary and his girlfriend through the center of Raman town in Yala
The sense of fear and isolation has also reflexively fueled heightened levels
of nationalism among many Thai Buddhists in the region. For them the struggle
is evolving into one of preserving not only their own security, but that of the
Thai nation against what they perceive as Muslim-led irredentism in the three
southernmost provinces, which historically were ruled by the sultanate of
Pattani until being consolidated into the Thai state at the turn of the 20th
Because of growing militia membership and relaxed gun registration processes,
many analysts believe the security situation could soon spiral out of control,
despite the Thai military's recent claims of declining violence in the region.
They point in particular to the still unexplained June 8 massacre of eleven
Muslims at the al-Furqan mosque in Ai Pa Yay village in Narathiwat province.
Villagers in Ai Pa Yay are cautious about assigning blame for the attack, but
as the official investigation into the incident unfolds it seems possible that
militia members, perhaps with help from current or former security forces,
staged the attack. The only arrest warrant issued thus far has been for a
former member of a paramilitary group.
According to the village head of Ai Pa Yay, Sama Pangoh, the day before the
attack a villager from a neighboring predominantly Buddhist village was killed
in an adjoining rubber plantation. "A day before the shooting at the mosque, a
Thai Buddhist working in the rubber plantation was killed about a kilometer
from here. So when there was the shooting here on the 8th, the villagers
understood that someone was avenging the death of the Thai Buddhist."
Several tit-for-tat attacks between Buddhists and Muslims followed the assault,
according to Sama. The government has taken a low-profile approach to the
investigation and only released limited details of its initial findings. The
issue, according to ISOC spokesman, Colonel Parinya Chaidilok, is "very
sensitive". "We have to know for sure and we have to catch them before
announcing who did it," he said.
Some suspect the attack was done by an unofficial militia. A Muslim
human-rights worker in the area told Asia Times Online, "Some of the people we
have interviewed, such as imams, spiritual leaders, village heads, or municipal
administration officials, have talked about incidents where the culprits are
unknown. They said there are non-uniformed groups or armed militias and they
don't know exactly where they came from. It seems that they weren't taking care
of the people's safety, but actually intensifying the conflict."
A growing number of Malay Muslims, who already see the army and police as a
threat to their security, are watching the rapid expansion of Buddhist-aligned
militias and the ease with which their members can acquire weapons with
trepidation. The Ai Pa Yay massacre and subsequent insurgent-distributed
propaganda claiming vigilante involvement in the killings have fueled feelings
of insecurity and prompted some Muslim villagers to seek out their own
firearms, which under government restrictions are more difficult for Muslims to
obtain due to fears that they will be funneled to insurgents.
Weapon possession among Muslims is often construed by security forces as
involvement in the insurgency and usually leads to arrests. Unable to rely on
the state for protection and under growing pressure from armed Buddhist
vigilante groups, Malay Muslim villages that were once supportive of the
government or hoped to remain neutral may be forced to seek out Muslim
insurgents for protection, some analysts suggest.
Those pressures, local says, are pulling apart once cohesive Muslim and
Buddhist communities. "During the time of our grandparents, they would make
their living working together, close to each other," said Sama, the headman of
Ai Pa Yay village. "But the [June 8 massacre] caused a lot of mistrust and
suspicion. All over these three provinces incidents have had an effect on the
relationship between many Muslim and Buddhist villages."
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached
at [email protected]