Accessibility links

Breaking News

Thailand's Use of Civilian Volunteers in Troubled South Raises Concerns

Thailand's army has increasingly turned to civilian volunteers to boost security in the troubled southern provinces. But rights activists fear arming civilians spreads more guns in a region that has suffered a bloody insurgency for five years.

In southern Thailand's Pattani province, the crackle of two-way communications is heard at a new community center, where civilian volunteers monitor security at night.

This is part of the Thai army's new weapon against an Islamic insurgency that has claimed more than 3,000 lives. The military has set up and equipped a number of volunteer self-defense networks in the south.

Lieutenant Colonel Yutanam Petchmong, who is in charge of the volunteer network in Yala province, says public participation in the network has helped lead to a sharp decline in attacks. It also eases the burden on police and security forces as a first line of security.

Islamist insurgents want the Thai government to relinquish control over the south, home to largely ethnic Malay population. While Thailand's population is Buddhist, most people in the provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani and Songkhla are Muslim.

Since the insurgency flared up in 2004, there have been almost daily bombings and attacks, mostly against civilians. The insurgents have particularly targeted teachers and civil servants.

Nipa Waya joined the local defense group. The community the 43-year-old lives in is largely Buddhist. They had been harassed, she says, by Muslim youths, but since a volunteer group was formed, security has improved.

She says the cooperation in the community has made it safer and the volunteers are able to protect the area.

The army gave Nipa a rifle and seven days of training. The volunteers also receive about $130 a month, although not all are given guns.

Volunteers help soldiers and police at roadblocks, and village rangers - armed with automatic weapons - provide additional security for convoys. Defense forces include both Buddhist and Muslims and they monitor local security. Volunteers also guard schools, which insurgents often attack.

There are more than 60,000 security forces and defense volunteers in the south, an area with a population of around two million.

Rights groups say the size of the force has led to a dangerous proliferation of weapons in the south.

The group Nonviolence International South East Asia said recently the number of troops and armed volunteers, together with rights violations by both the government and insurgents, have created a climate of fear and terror.

Yala Deputy Governor Krisada Boonrath, who has had staff killed by insurgents, wants to reduce the weapons in the province, although he says he has not yet seen a problem from the number of guns there.

"I think the situation has improved - not just from the arms supply, I think from the people's participation in the area - that is the important factor," he said. "I have a program to reduce the arms but at this time I am not concerned."

But a representative for Nonviolence International, Fred Lubang, says arming volunteers shows the government's weakness as it tries to end the violence.

"It further increases the mistrust between the Thai Buddhists and Muslims. It arms communities so we're looking at a scenario where each would be armed. responding violently against each other," said Lubang. "So if the policies stay the same we're moving toward that direction."

These concerns were heightened in June when gunmen fired automatic weapons into a mosque, killing 12 people attending evening prayers.

Media reports allege the attackers were Buddhists, some of whom are defense volunteers. And there are reports that the weapons used have been linked to another attack on a group of Muslim villagers at a tea shop last year.

Rights activists note that the police and army in the south have been accused of numerous human rights abuses over the past few years, few of which have been investigated. They say that arming lightly trained civilians could add to the problem.

The violence in Thailand's south shows few signs of abating. Just days ago, a 50 kilogram car bomb injured more than 40 people.

The government acknowledges that security measures alone will not end the violence. The government has called for improving the justice system, addressing abuses by all sides, and boosting the economy of the impoverished region to bring peace.