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Gun economy rules Thai south

Written By vibykhmer on Friday, August 28, 2009 | 7:02 AM


Villagers take part in a self-defence training session using government-issued weapons in southern Thailand's Pattani province - Reuters

The Straits Times

BANGKOK, Aug 28 — The conflict in southern Thailand has spawned an expanding 'gun economy' which is fuelling the violence that has killed well over 3,000 people since January 2004, independent research groups said on Wednesday.

In a response to militant violence, several government agencies have been arming and training civilian militias — mostly from the minority Buddhist community.

The programme includes free or subsidised guns, ranging from handguns and shotguns to automatic weapons.

But this has led to a free-for-all weapons race, with legal and illegal guns being supplied under the table to anyone with the money to buy them.

Guns are brought in from neighbouring Cambodia, or supplied over the counter or surreptitiously by dealers in Bangkok often working with the connivance of corrupt officials — including rogue soldiers. And in many cases, guns are stolen off victims of the violence.

A report titled Rule By The Gun by a non-governmental organisation (NGO) headquartered in Washington, Non-violence International Southeast Asia, estimated that out of some 4.6 million registered weapons in Thailand, 160,000 are in the four southern provinces of Yala, Narathiwat,Pattani and Songkhla.

There has been an estimated 10 per cent rise in registered weapons in these provinces since 2004, the report said. The number of illegal weapons can only be guessed at, but the region is clearly awash with them as well. Some 40 per cent of killings in the south since 2004 have been due to shooting incidents. But not all are related to separatism.

Analysts and academics, like Marc Askew of the Prince of Songkla University in Pattani, have cited the need to separate insurgency-related violence from personal conflicts. In a recent article, Askew cited an interview with a militant in Narathiwat in which the subject said: “We're not doing all the killing here. Village headmen, kamnan (sub-district chiefs) and local politicians are whacking each other all over the place in my district — maybe 30 per cent of all killings here are a result of local conflicts and vested interests.”

Other analysts say up to half of the killings may be related to local squabbles. This soup of ethnic separatism and endemic conflict between local interest groups in a border region rife with criminality, feeds off an old gun culture and renewed cycle of weapons proliferation. “It is evident that the persistent lack of security in the southernmost provinces is undoubtedly profitable for those involved in the gun trade,” the on-violence International report said.

Speaking at a seminar at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University on Wednesday, Angkhana Neelapaijit, chair of the southern NGO Working Group On Justice For Peace, said: “People feel they can't be protected by the government, so civilians arm themselves.”

At the same seminar, Major-General Chanin Chandrachoti, chief of the army's intelligence coordination centre, admitted that there has been a proliferation of arms in the south. But given the climate of fear in the region, and the government's failure to ensure law and order, from the locals' point of view there are compelling reasons to carry a gun.

Krissada Bunraj, deputy governor of Yala province, who carries a gun himself, acknowledged the need for arms reduction. But, given the security situation and local sentiment, he said: “I can't just tell citizens to disarm.”

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