Are a disbanded group of specialist military rangers the shadowy figures operating in the current conflict? Here is a look at the history of the country's hunter-fighters, a group of trained killers
Thailand has become a land of shadows and people are genuinely afraid of what lurks inside them. Both pro-government and anti-government groups have claimed these shadowy forces are being used against them. Black-hooded men have been caught on film on the red side of the protest carrying assault weapons. International observers and locals alike were astonished at the scenes of bungled arrests of United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) leaders, dismantled government-erected barricades and police and soldiers being stripped of their weapons and authority by black-uniformed red guards.
Away from the downtown rally sites, unknown hands have fired grenades and bullets at banks, giant electricity pylons have been rigged with explosives and aviation fuel depots have been hit by rocket-propelled-grenades.
Joining the dots is getting difficult and it's not for a lack of dots - they're everywhere.
Newspapers, in fear of litigation, carry comment from various spokespeople that condemn, but rarely follow through with a name. A recent example in the Bangkok Post quoted an army spokesperson as saying: "It was possible that acts of terrorism that took place during the clashes might have been supported by a former government leader."
Another silhouette to add to the increasing shadows?
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One name that has been in and out of the shadows and is a constant in the media is that of rogue army officer Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol, better known by his nickname Seh Daeng.
Seh Daeng has been an embarrassment to and a thorn in the side of his army superiors. Issuing threats and suspected of being involved in a grenade attack on army chief General Anupong Paojinda's office, Seh Daeng has been vocal in his support for fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his red shirt supporters. Seh Daeng has used the media to predict violence and boasted about his visits to overseas luxury hideouts to see the fugitive Thaksin. He has been publicly accused of keeping war weapons and ammunition in his house and he has claimed he trained former para-military rangers as a "people's army" to protect red shirt leaders and their followers - a claim supported by an unnamed military source.
"We know he has been training them for about 12 months, both here in Bangkok and in other provinces. Seh Daeng loves the limelight and it's not sure if he is taking orders or giving them. It's rumoured, but it's only a rumour, a powerful general, a former classmate of Thaksin's, may be orchestrating a power grab."
The army source says their real concern is not the rumours, but the involvement in the protests of former soldiers and thahan phran, or hunter-soldiers.
"The ordinary red shirt people are not a worry for us, but former war combatants and rangers with conflict experience are. We know they have experience of firing M79s and assault weapons, but now, since the fuel depot was attacked, we know they also have experience with rocket-propelled grenades; there are not many combatants who have that experience."
In spite of army disapproval for his alleged misconduct and disregard for army rules, Seh Daeng continues to publicly flaunt his support for Thaksin and the UDD rallies. Following the April 10 fighting near Democracy Monument which left 25 dead and more than 800 injured, Seh Daeng, dressed in military fatigues, spoke to television reporters as he walked through applauding red shirt admirers.
Seh Daeng is not alone in his crusade, nor is he the only former senior military man to champion the concept of a people's army. Seh Daeng's former supervisor and army superior, General Panlop Pinmanee, was reported in the Bangkok Post as saying he asked Seh Daeng for his help "after he had noticed many former border rangers from the closed Pak Thong Chai camp had joined the red shirt rallies".
Gen Panlop is a former deputy director of Thailand's Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) and a current member of the Puea Thai Party.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a research fellow of the Asean Studies Centre, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) in Singapore, writing on Opinion Asia's website said: "General Panlop Pinmanee recently stated that he wished to transform the red-shirted movement into a 'people's army', with former prime minister and Thaksin ally General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh as the supreme commander."
Gen Chavalit has been there before. Border rangers also know that the thahan phran were the brainchild of Gen Chavalit, a former supreme commander of the Thai Armed Forces and the present chairman of the opposition Puea Thai Party (PTP). The general is a supporter of Thaksin - who many believe is the real power behind the PTP. The thahan phran revere Gen Chavalit and often refer to him as their "father".
Ironically, Gen Chavalit created the thahan phran in 1978 as a para-military force to hunt down and clear out the Communist Party of Thailand from their mountain strongholds in the Northeast, the region that mainly rural red shirt protesters have come to Bangkok from.
Professor Desmond Ball from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University in Canberra has written The Boys In Black (White Lotus), a book that documents the thahan phran's successes, crimes, abuses and political intimidation and corrupt practices. Prof Ball is regarded as a military expert and has published 60 books on nuclear strategy and defence and security in the Asia-Pacific region.
Speaking on the phone from Canberra, Prof Ball said if former thahan phran are being used in the present Thai conflict then there is real cause for the government to be worried.
"Their involvement is reason for serious concern. The thahan phran are trained hunter-killers. Many are from poor rural villages, but they've always been prepared to be 'strong armed men' for the establishment or particular generals."
Prof Ball says the re-organisation in 2000 of the thahan phran was traumatic for the rangers. It saw eight of 21 regiments disbanded. Ironically, an arch red shirt enemy, General Surayud Chulanont, then commander-in-chief of the army, oversaw the dismantling of the thahan phran.
Gen Surayud is now a member of the Privy Council, one of the ruling class institutions opposed by the UDD. Gen Surayud earned the ire of the UDD early this year when large numbers of red shirts forced him to abandon his house. Guarding UDD leaders at the red shirt rally outside the general's home were rangers, some dressed in full uniforms, complete with regimental insignia. No doubt many of the former rangers still bear grudges against Gen Surayud. Prof Ball says in his book the decision "drew heavy criticism from para-military troopers who said the action was motivated by politics".
Prof Ball says when Gen Chavalit became defence minister in Thaksin Shinawatra's government, there were media stories that he might rebuild a new thahan phran.
In his book, Prof Ball says the sacked rangers now working "as security guards for private companies were soon embroiled in controversy. On November 17, 2000, about 40 armed men in black uniforms, all former rangers from the Pakthongchai camp, intimated vendors at the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok."
Prof Ball says in their heyday the thahan phran were mostly used in counter-insurgency campaigns, were the rules of engagement are vague and gross violence is commonplace.
"The worst of them have been very bad, atrocious. At their worst they became thugs and murderers. In the Northeast, along the Cambodian border and in southern Thailand their reputation was shocking."
His book says rangers and police have come to grief in the past.
"Conflict between rangers and police in the South resurfaced in connection with the killing of more than 20 police officers [as at July 2002] and the bombing of numerous police stations in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces in 2001-2002."
Prof Ball says police "suggested" rangers "from the 41st and 43rd Regiments were 'perhaps' working as 'hired guns' or 'enforcers' for corrupt officials who were actually involved in the killings".
But Prof Ball stressed that not all thahan phran regiments are rogues.
"Those operating in the Northwest region of Thailand have been as good and professional as the regular army."
He says if the thahan phran are involved in the political upheavals now paralysing the country, it won't be their first time. In his book he details their past political missions on behalf of Gen Chavalit.
"For their part, the 'rangers have worked to destabilise democratically elected Thai governments, physically intimidated Gen Chavalit's political opponents, and committed electoral fraud for Gen Chavalit's, now defunct, New Aspiration Party (NAP) and its allied parties and politicians." Gen Chavalit's opponents, the Democrats, are also listed in Prof Ball's book as having past links to rangers involved in violence in southern Thailand.
"They have allegedly campaigned for, and conducted electoral fraud, on behalf of candidates from all parts of the country and various political shades, including both Democrats in the south and the New Aspiration party (NAP) in the Northeast." Back in December 2009, Gen Panlop told the Bangkok Post he ordered Seh Daeng to prevent a confrontation between former border rangers and army soldiers. Gen Panlop said about 200 former border rangers had voluntarily joined the red shirt rally because they deeply respected Gen Chavalit. At the time he said more former rangers would join the red shirt rallies.
Media reports suggest Gen Panlop's prediction is coming true. Contrary to the UDD leadership claims that their rallies are peaceful, all the recent signs and military style preparations indicate that organised violence lurks just beneath the surface. Late on Thursday night violence broke out again. One person was killed and 88 injured when a number of M79 grenades were fired into the Silom district. One landed on the Sala Daeng skytrain station, the others in front of a hotel and outside a bank. A UDD leader, Arisman Pongruengrong, was reported as telling his red shirt supporters that the "men in black" would be coming to help them. If the "men in black" turn out to be the former combat-hardened soldiers and rangers that the army fears, there is a real possibility Bangkok's streets could yet become a conflict zone, with many casualties on both sides.