Irregular and Inappropriate: Thailand’s Paramilitaries and Pro-Government Militias
The Thai state’s numerous off-budget militias and paramilitaries should be terminated.
Thailand has long been dominated by the arch-royalist military (Army, Navy, and Air Force) and Police. The long-running insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South, recent coups, juntas and constitutions, and the new age protest movement have renewed attention to the resurgent political influence of the Thai military and police. For better, not worse, these huge bureaucracies are bound by chains of command and specifically set budgets.
More attention needs to be paid to the Thai state’s resurgent reliance on lightly trained irregular security forces to counter the Deep South insurgency and nationwide protest movement. Irregular forces function in support of the military and Police and are armed units informally under the Army-dominated Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) but outside of the chain-of-command security hierarchy. They are off-budget, cheaper, easier to mobilise, and less disciplined and trained (sometimes only for 3 days) than regular troops. Irregulars are divided into paramilitaries and militias. The former is more permanent, trained and state-monitored.
There are five paramilitaries in Thailand today: the Border Patrol Police (BPP), the Volunteer Defense Corps (VDC or O So); the Paramilitary Marines; the Rangers; and the National Defense Volunteers (NDV). The BPP is the most professional though its members have been used to violently quell student demonstrators in Bangkok. The O So have faced allegations of corruption and human rights violations, and been accused of targeted killings as well as acting as informal hitmen for Ministry of Interior superiors.
The Paramilitary Marines, in 2013, faced allegations that some had been involved in the human trafficking of Rohingya people from Myanmar, and Marines have been said to have provided strong-arm security for arch-royalist protestors in 2013-2014. The Rangers have faced the most human rights abuse allegations and been involved in killings of unarmed civilians, rapes, and the murder of Police officers. Rangers were also suspected of stealing weapons from Police and Army depots. The most infamous Ranger incident occurred in October 2004 in Tak Bai, in the southern border province of Narathiwat, when the 45th Regiment Rangers overloaded protestors in trucks to be transported: 78 died of asphyxiation. The NDV was once an important anti-communist paramilitary. In 2007, their role became limited to national disaster response (e.g. the Covid-19 pandemic). They can be used by the state to enforce the Communicable Diseases Act against protestors.
There are also currently four militias: the Village Development and Self Defense Volunteers (Cho Ro Bo); the Village Protection Volunteers (O Ro Bo); the Village Scouts (Luksuea Chaoban); and the Volunteers of Spirit (Chit Asa). The Cho Ro Bo and O Ro Bo were created in 2004 to provide security for villages in Thailand’s Deep South during an upsurge in the insurgency by Thai Malay-Muslim separatists there. The Cho Ro Bo are often the easiest targets of insurgents and have been accused of human rights violations as well as using child soldiers. The O Ro Bo is considered the most troublesome towards Muslims since its members are exclusively non-Muslim. O Ro Bo units are sometimes based (and store their weapons) in Buddhist temples, a fact which has unnerved Deep South Muslims. The Luksuea Chaoban and Chit Asa are two ISOC-organized arch-royalist, nationalist, mass organisations composed of mostly volunteers that could easily act as extra muscle for the state. Luksuea Chaoban notoriously participated in the lynching of student demonstrators at Thammasat University in Bangkok on 6 October 1976.
In 2011, the Thai military decided to increasingly subcontract Deep South counterinsurgency operations to paramilitaries and pro-government militias, freeing up regular troops. Rangers became a significant part of newly reorganised security forces in the Deep South counterinsurgency. In 2016, approximately 40 per cent of this military contingent were Rangers. This proportion remains roughly the same in 2021. The number of other irregulars has grown in the Deep South. In 2021, there are 8,000 O So, 59,000 Cho Ro Bo and 4,000 O Ro Bo there.*
In 2011, the Thai military decided to increasingly subcontract Deep South counterinsurgency operations to paramilitaries and pro-government militias, freeing up regular troops.
As these irregular forces have overlapping missions and are indirectly controlled by the Army-dominated ISOC, why so many of them? Because different bureaucracies want to formally possess their armed auxiliary: the BPP is under the Police; the Rangers are under the Army; the Marines are under the Navy; and the O So, NDV and Cho Ro Bo are under the Ministry of Interior. The palace influences three militias. The O Ro Bo is under the Office of the Defense Ministry’s Royal Aide-de-Camp. The Luksuea Chaoban was established in 1971 by the BPP under the Interior Ministry through the patronage of the monarchy. The Chit Asa was created by the current monarch in 2018 and positioned under the Ratchawallop Police Retainers, King’s Guards 904, itself an appendage of the palace.
This diversity in irregulars and duplication of missions has led to turf tensions. Also, since Thailand’s post-2011 reliance on irregulars in the Deep South, these more poorly-trained and trigger-happy cadres have come to the fore of counterinsurgency efforts, meaning more human rights violations. Irregular forces in counterinsurgency operations enjoy legal protections under the emergency decree act or martial law.
Ultimately, improving human rights and security accountability in Thailand requires the replacement of these irregular forces by professional Police. For worse, not better, as long as Thailand remains dominated by a monarchy and military that does not answer to civilians, such a transformation is unlikely.
*Information from research interviews for a forthcoming book chapter.
Paul Chambers is a Lecturer at Naresuan University.