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Last week Elliot Brennan raised concerns (No Peace, More Guns: Thai Junta Arms Civilians in Restive South) about the distribution of weapons to civilian volunteers in Thailand’s southern border provinces.
These concerns are valid, but it is important to understand that the distribution of weapons does not necessarily represent a significant escalation. Nor does it necessarily represent a policy shift on the part of the Thai military in its approach to handling the southern border provinces conflict.
All signs are that the weapons – HK33 rifles – will be going to the ‘Or Sor’, a longstanding paramilitary unit that falls under the control of the Thai Ministry of Interior. Thai-language newspaper coverage of the decision has used the abbreviation ‘Or Sor’ as well as the unabbreviated asa samak raksa khwam blort pay (roughly, ‘volunteers looking after safety’). While the full name used for Or Sor is usually asa samak raksa din daeng (‘volunteers looking after territory’) or just asa samak (‘volunteer’), the fact that the newspapers have mentioned that the unit is within the Ministry of Interior and under the control of the Bureau of Territorial Defence Volunteers Administration strongly suggests that the media is referring to Or Sor.
As explained in Des Ball and David Mathieson’s authoritative book, Militia Redux, the Or Sor is a volunteer group in the sense that its members are not conscripts. But Or Sor members are paid similarly to soldiers, and receive military training. On some occasions, they are assigned heavy weapons. Established in 1954 under US (CIA) sponsorship, the Or Sor was used to promote nationalism, enhance village security in remote areas and oppose communism.
In the post-Cold War era Or Sor has performed a variety of roles, from administering refugee camps along the Thai border to carrying out the Thaksin Administration’s notorious war on drugs in 2003. It has been active in the southern border provinces for at least a decade. As violence escalated in 2004, its number increased to some 1900. In the past, some units there have been given Humvees and M-60 machine guns.
Paramilitarism is a complex and important feature of Thailand’s security landscape. The first official paramilitary unit was King Rama VI’s (1910-1925) personal bodyguard, the Wild Tiger Corps. As the twentieth century progressed more than fifty such units were formed, mainly to support Thailand’s approach to counterinsurgency. Paramilitaries are part of the Thai military’s official defence doctrine, the Total War Strategy, which envisages the Thai military, paramilitaries and civilians fighting in unison to defeat both internal and external threats.
Paramilitaries and civilian volunteers also link to one of the most powerful military legends in Thailand, the story of Bang Rajan, in which heroic villagers resisted the marauding Burmese with nothing but weapons fashioned from farming tools. In his article ‘The Politics of Memory in Thailand and Australia’, Glen Lewis compares the Bang Rajan legend to the ANZAC legend in its status as a ‘foundation historical myth’.
None of this means that giving more arms to the Or Sor in the southern border provinces is a good thing. Ball and Mathieson argue that it adds to security problems in the south, where a lack of coordination between disparate agencies has limited overall effectiveness. And while Or Sor is liked by many Thais for its role in helping rural folk during disasters, Ball and Mathieson argue that its lower level of training leads to a greater propensity for involvement in crime and human rights abuses.
The article first appeared in The Interpreter on the Lowy Institute website.
Picture credits: Flickr user null0.