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License to Arm Civilians against Muslim Insurgency by Marwaan Macan-Markar | Inter Press Service


With an insurgency threatening to worsen, Thailand’s military is turning to civilians like Nipa Waya to return fire in the three southern provinces close to the Malaysian border. Nipa, a single mother, maintains a vigil through the night armed with a shotgun at the entrance to a Buddhist village on the outskirts of this southern city.

With her, on a recent night, were 15 other men and women, similarly armed, who are part of a civilian-defence force. “We move around to other checkpoints through the night,” says the 43-year-old Nipa, holding a weapon that is almost as tall as her. “I want to help the people from being attacked by the insurgents.” “I feel brave with this gun,” adds Nipa, who, till she started this nightshift near an abandoned building two years ago, had neither held nor used a gun.

 “We got seven days training where we learnt to shoot.

We also had physical training, like jumping from towers.” Nipa, a Thai Buddhist, welcomes the move by the Thai military to recruit civilians to combat the shadowy network of Malay Muslim insurgents responsible for the violence that has erupted since early 2004 in the southern provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani.

The violence in the south, which has seen over 3,400 deaths during the past five and a half years, is testing the limits of the relationship between Thai Buddhists, who are the majority in this country, and the country’s largest minority, the Malay Muslims, who are the dominant community in the three insurgency-torn provinces.

It is from this pool of Thai Buddhists and Malay Muslims that the army is recruiting civilians to be part of a network of an armed civilian force. The groups that they belong to have names like ‘Village Protection Volunteers’ and ‘Iron Lady Unit’.

Researchers estimate that over 30,000 civilians have been trained to shoot to help the armed forces, whose current troop strength, according to unofficial estimates, is close to 60,000 in the south. The Volunteer Defence Corps, for instance, is armed with the U.S.-made M-16 and the German-made HK-33 assault rifles.

Yet mothers like Nipa are not the only ones given access to weapons in an area awash with guns of various make held by civilians. Teachers, civil servants and village headmen are among those who have received license to purchase pistols and rifles for personal protection.

“People carry firearms in the south because it is a necessity,” says Krisda Boonrath, deputy governor of Yala province. “I also carry firearms to stay alive.” “The firearms given to state officials are warfare firearms,” adds Maj. Gen. Chanint Jantarachot.

“The firearms possessed by citizens are all done through a legal process.” Little wonder why there is an extensive number of firearms available in the over 2,000 villages spread out among the rubber plantations and rice fields across this southern rural landscape of flatlands and gentle, rolling hills. In Baan Mae Tinah, a village in the province of Pattani, 60 villagers have been trained to use weapons.

 “We received weapons training for 10 days. Both men and women were taught how to use shotguns,” says Prayon Plomkaeo, the headman of the village that stands out for its rare mix of Buddhist and Muslim villagers living as one community.

“We have 15 rifles in our village that are used for daily guard duty.” It is a trend that has alarmed peace and human rights groups. “It is estimated that each village force is to have at least 50 civilian security personnel,” reveals Nonviolence International (NI), the Washington D.C.-based body that promotes peaceful resistance, in a report released in May on the gun culture in the troubled south.

 “By extrapolation, the quantity of civilians participating in these forces can reach 102,500 or 5.7 percent of the total population in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces.” “Similarly, with at least 15 firearms – in particular shotguns and rifles – distributed to each village force, the total weapons add up to 30,750 fireams circulated in the southernmost areas,” adds the report, ‘Rule By The Gun: Armed Civilians and Firearms Proliferation in Southern Thailand’.

“Additionally, other civilian forces with less formal command structures have also been supported by the army, government, or even victimised civilians themselves.” “The south is becoming more militarised, and the military is projecting this issue along the lines that someone should fight the war – they are arming the civilians to fight the locals,” Fred Lubang, who heads NI’s Bangkok office, told IPS. “Security is defined by deterrence.”

“In this policy the Thai Buddhists are getting more and better arms and have better access to weapons than the Malay Muslims,” he revealed. “This is making the conflict more complex.” If anything, the presence of more weapons in this region only serves to create more insecurity instead of the other way around, which, analysts say, is what the military was hoping to achieve.

 “The purpose of arming civilians for self-defence is because they were living in fear and they could use the weapons for self-protection,” says Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, Thailand analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.

But neither the military nor the government can fully control the way these weapons to civilians are used, she explained in an interview. “It has only led to more insecurity. The situation will get worse.”

Such concern has already proved true in the wake of a bloody attack on the Al Furqan mosque in Narathiwat in early June. Six gunmen with automatic rifles stormed the mosque and indiscriminately pumped rounds of bullets while Malay Muslim boys and men were performing their evening prayers. The attack left 11 people dead and 12 injured. Officials, after initially blaming the Malay Muslim insurgents, turned their attention to Thai Buddhists in the area.

In August, the police named Sutthirak Kongsuwan, a Buddhist who belonged to a village militia, as one suspect. This case of armed civilians attacking the Malay Muslims at prayer feeds into the narrative that has shaped the political violence in the troubled south.

The current upsurge in violence is the latest in a cycle going back to the late 1960s, when a previous generation of militants waged a separatist campaign through the 1970s and ‘80s to reclaim the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat for the Malay-Muslims.

These three provinces belonged to the Pattani kingdom, which was annexed by Siam, as Thailand was then known, in 1902. Malay Muslims have, since the annexation, complained of cultural and linguistic discrimination and, later, economic marginalisation. “The mosque attack shows how arming civilians could exacerbate this conflict,” says Rungrawee. “It only heightens communal tensions.”