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Southern Thailand: The Problem with Paramilitaries
Southern Thailand: The Problem with Paramilitaries
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Thailand: Malay-Muslim Insurgency and the Dangers of Intractability
Thailand: Malay-Muslim Insurgency and the Dangers of Intractability
Report 140 / Asia

Southern Thailand: The Problem with Paramilitaries

Thailand’s increasing reliance on paramilitary forces and civilian militias is hindering efforts to tackle the insurgency in its majority Muslim southern provinces.

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Executive Summary

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.


Jakarta/Brussels, 23 October 2007


Commentary / Asia

Thailand: Malay-Muslim Insurgency and the Dangers of Intractability

The Malay-Muslim separatist insurgency in Thailand’s South has little in common with jihadism, but persistent instability could provide openings for foreign jihadists who thrive on  disorder. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – Second Update early warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to encourage Bangkok to accept some degree of decentralisation and to implement measures that can diminish radicalisation.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – Second Update.

The occurrence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)-linked or inspired violence in Jakarta, Mindanao, and Puchong, near Kuala Lumpur, has raised fears of a new era of transnational jihadist terrorism in South East Asia. To date, ISIS has used Thailand as a transit point rather than a target; indeed, there is no known case of a Thai citizen joining the group. But the persistence of a Malay-Muslim separatist insurgency in the kingdom’s southernmost provinces, where roughly 7,000 people have been killed since 2004, is a source of concern among some Western governments, Thai officials, local people and even some within the militant movement. Repeated, if poorly substantiated reports of ISIS activity in Thailand, from foreign fighters transiting through Bangkok to allegations of Malaysian ISIS members buying small arms in southern Thailand, have prompted questions about the insurgency’s susceptibility to radicalisation along transnational jihadist lines. Yet even absent intervention by foreign jihadists, the insurgency’s own dynamics could lead to greater violence.

Thus far, the separatist insurgency has had little in common with jihadism. Rooted in the country’s nearly two million Malay Muslims, who constitute a majority in the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, its aspirations are nationalist in nature: liberation of Patani, the homeland they consider to have been colonised by Thailand, and defence of Patani-Malay identity against so-called Siamification. Moreover, the insurgency draws support from traditionalist Islamic leaders, upholders of a syncretic, Sufi-inflected Islam who oppose the rigid views propagated by jihadists. Even the relatively small Salafi minority rejects ISIS’s brutal tactics and apocalyptic vision; some among them claim that ISIS is a product of Western machinations. For Barisan Revolusi Nasional Patani Melayu (BRN, Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front), the main Malay-Muslim militant group, in other words, association with transnational jihadists would risk cutting them off from their base while triggering greater isolation. It could also internationalise efforts to defeat them.

Dangers of an Intractable Conflict

Yet perpetuation of the conflict risks altering its trajectory which, in turn, threatens to change the nature of the insurgency. In principle, this could potentially open opportunities for foreign jihadists, who have proven adept at exploiting other protracted conflicts. That remains for now a theoretical threat: little evidence thus far suggests jihadist penetration in Southern Thailand. As noted, neither the insurgency nor the broader Malay Muslim community has shown any inclination toward jihadism.

Without progress in peace talks or an inclusive dialogue, insurgents might resort to more dramatic acts of violence.

Without progress in peace talks or an inclusive dialogue, insurgents might resort to more dramatic acts of violence however. They already have shown they can stage attacks outside the deep south, as they did in August 2016 when they conducted a series of coordinated, small-scale bombings in seven resort areas, wounding European tourists among others. Militant groups also might splinter, with rival factions competing to demonstrate their capabilities to potential supporters and the government. In turn, increased violence or attacks against civilians – particularly outside the conflict zone – could fuel an anti-Islamic backlash and stimulate Buddhist nationalism, creating tensions between Muslim and Buddhist communities throughout the country. A prolonged conflict means more young Malay Muslims will have grown up in a polarised society and experienced traumatic events. This could split a more pragmatic elder generation from a more militant younger one.

Stalled dialogue

The surest way to reduce these risks would be to bring the insurgency to an end – a task at present both daunting and long-term. The ruling, military-led National Council for Peace and Order, which seized power in a May 2014 coup, is engaged in a dialogue with MARA Patani (Majlis Syura Patani, Patani Consultative Council), an umbrella group of five militant organisations whose leaders are in exile. But many perceive the dialogue, facilitated by Malaysia, essentially as a public-relations exercise through which Bangkok intends to signal its willingness to peacefully resolve the conflict without making any concessions. Likewise, there are doubts that MARA can control most fighters: although the BRN has the top three slots in MARA Patani’s leadership, BRN’s information department insists these members have been suspended and do not speak for the organisation.

After a year-and-a-half, the MARA process remains stuck. In April 2016, the Thai government balked at signing a Terms of Reference agreement to govern talks, which remain unofficial. At the time, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha argued that MARA lacked the necessary status to act as the government’s counterpart. After a hiatus, the two sides resumed their meetings in August and, in February 2017, they agreed in principle to establish “safety zones”, district-level compacts in which neither side would target civilians. They also agreed to form inclusive committees to investigate violent incidents, although details still need to be worked out and they have yet to announce a district for pilot implementation.

For its part, BRN insists on impartial international mediation and third-party observers as conditions for formal talks with Bangkok. In a 10 April 2017 statement, BRN’s information department reiterated these prerequisites and noted that negotiating parties themselves should design the process, a jab at Malaysia’s role as facilitator. Demonstrating that they exercised control over fighters, the BRN implemented an unannounced lull in attacks from 8 to 17 April, a period preceded and followed by waves of coordinated attacks across several districts.

In late June 2017, a senior Thai official said that the government might re-examine the issue of the identity of its counterpart, a rare public sign of high-level deliberation and possible flexibility. Although this could suggest willingness to consider BRN’s conditions – including the sensitive question of Malaysia’s role and that of any internationalisation – which it previously had rejected outright, it could also constitute another delaying tactic.

The National Council for Peace and Order apparently still clings to the conviction that the conflict can be resolved through attrition, enemy surrenders and economic development, without any fundamental change in state/society relations in the deep south. The military, whose entire ethos is based on the image of national unity and whose senior officers tend to view enhanced local power as a first step toward partition, is loath to contemplate autonomy or political decentralisation. Since taking power, it has suppressed once-lively public debate about decentralisation models, such as proposals for elected governors or sub-regional assemblies.

Options for the European Union

In this context, one of the international community’s longer-term goals should be to encourage Bangkok to accept some degree of political decentralisation as fully compatible with preservation of national unity. For the European Union (EU) and those EU member states that are engaged in the country such as Germany, in particular, an important objective would be to encourage the government to establish a more inclusive dialogue and to support it, when possible, through capacity building for both parties. Admittedly, their influence with the National Council for Peace and Order is limited. After the 2014 coup, the EU suspended official visits to and from Thailand, as well as negotiations for the Free Trade Agreement and the Partnership Cooperation Agreement, pending a return to elected government. Restrictions on popular representation, codified in the new constitution and laws, mean that even a general election, now scheduled for 2018, might not satisfy the EU’s requirement of functioning democratic institutions. Moreover, Bangkok is not yet prepared to countenance an EU role.

[The] EU and member states should urge the Thai government to restore civil liberties and freedom of expression to allow more open discussion and debate.

That aside, relations with Bangkok are not hostile; Thailand and the EU held a Senior Officials Meeting 9 June 2017 in Brussels, the first since 2012. When conditions permit, the EU should be well placed to support a peace process, given perceptions in Thailand of its impartiality. In the meantime, the EU and member states should continue encouraging the parties to deal with each other constructively. This could include sharing experiences in sub-national conflict resolution and political power devolution or offering training on matters such as negotiations, communication and conflict management.

In the near term, the EU and member states should urge the Thai government to restore civil liberties and freedom of expression to allow more open discussion and debate. Among other benefits, such steps would facilitate a public conversation within Malay Muslim communities that, in turn, might diminish risks of radicalisation. Already, the EU backs civil-society organisations’ endeavours to promote community and youth engagement in peace building. This ought to continue.