BANGKOK, Thailand — The armed teenagers patrolling Thailand’s southern borderlands with state-backed militias are not kidnapped or brainwashed. They aren’t pumped full of drugs and few, if any, have ever killed.
Still, they operate with grown, gun-toting men defending against Asia’s bloodiest Islamic insurgency. And their dissimilarity with the world’s more horrific examples of child soldiering — think Burma or Liberia — is part of the reason they remain largely ignored.
Just as Thailand’s militia kids are overlooked, so is the conflict that has sucked them in. A little-known rebellion along the Thai-Malaysia border seeks to turn a Connecticut-sized territory into the world’s newest Islamic state. Since 2004, the insurgency has left roughly 4,800 dead.
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The rebels’ daily shootings, bombings or stabbings have stoked paranoia among their targets: “infidels,” Thai Buddhists, and their “running dogs,” non-separatist Muslims with ties to the government.
To bolster forces, Thailand’s government has helped organize and arm a patchwork of self-defense militias, amounting to roughly 50,000 men and women, that patrol villages with shotguns and rifles.
According to Child Soldiers International, a London-based non-profit that monitors underage soldiering, teenagers help fill the ranks of one or more Thai state-funded militias. But young recruits aren’t necessarily dragooned into serving.
“We’ve found some children are actually quite happy to be involved,” said Pratubjit Neelapaijit of the Justice for Peace Foundation, a Thai non-profit watchdog group. “They understand it as part of security, securing their family. When we go to the villages and ask to take photos, they’re quite proud to take their guns out and show us.”
Joint field research by Child Soldiers International and the Justice for Peace Foundation has turned up boys as young as 14 patrolling with guns or guarding checkpoints against insurgents. Of the 19 villages investigated, they claim that 13 contained minors formally or informally connected to state-operated defense network known by the Thai shorthand “Chor Ror Bor.”
Still, most youth involvement with Thai militias amounts to errand running, spying on suspicious outsiders or making tea for adult patrolmen.
There is scant evidence that boys in their early teens routinely join militia raids led by active-duty Thai troops. Thai militia kids have also fared better than child soldiers in Burma, who have been forced to clear land mines by hand, or in sub-Saharan Africa, where children have been yanked from villages, fed narcotics and forced into gun battles.
So do Thailand’s militia kids merit the label “child soldiers”?
According to the United Nations definition, yes: anyone under 18, including “cooks, porters, messengers and anyone accompanying” an armed group qualifies as a child soldier.
Still, the UN has not risked challenging the Thai government with an investigation into young boys caught up in militias.
A report this year to the UN Security Council insists UN researchers are “not in a position to monitor, report or verify these allegations” of child soldiering in violent insurgency zones. Thai officials portray the insurgency as a domestic conflict and take pains to keep global agencies out, even as the US quietly offers training and advice.
Charu Lata Hogg, a Child Soldiers International researcher, defends labeling Thai militia kids as child soldiers. Even light assistance to militias, which are frequently attacked by insurgents, places kids in the line of fire, she said.
“Death is not pretty," Hogg said. And Thailand is under international obligation to prevent this situation.”
The exact number of kids working with Thai militias is unknown and, if anything, underestimated, according to Hogg. Her investigation, she said, is “not a totally exhaustive study” and focuses only on one of several militias.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
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The extent to which shadowy Islamic separatist groups rely on teenagers is even tougher to approximate. “We can’t access the insurgents’ side,” Pratubjit said, “but we believe they also train children.”
Gun culture is rife in Thailand’s three main insurgency-wracked provinces: Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat. Muslim and Buddhist kids alike attend schools transformed into army-manned fortresses, the result of ongoing insurgent strikes against a state education system seen as subverting their cause. The principal of a school visited by GlobalPost in June said that roughly 30 percent of his teachers tote pistols to school.
Yothaga Reungsanga, the wife of a militia chief in Pattani, has warned her husband not to leave guns unsupervised in their home. “I don’t like a bunch of guns laying around,” she said. “My teenage son is kind of a hothead. If he gets in a fight, he’ll want to settle it on the spot.”
In response to allegations of child soldiering, Thailand has in recent years forbidden militias from recruiting anyone younger than 18. Still, according to the Justice for Peace Foundation, the problem persists in Thailand’s deep south, an unruly hinterlands where rules from far-flung Bangkok officials can be tough to enforce.
The foundation is pushing for an even stricter law that would forbid any association whatsoever between minors and militias. This would ban kids from fetching food or doing chores for on-duty militiamen, a level of involvement that technically meets the UN definition of child soldiering.
In 2006, Thailand signed a UN convention on the “involvement of children in armed conflict” that could give the UN authority to send monitors into the insurgency zone if child-soldiering is identified and goes unresolved. Such findings could land Thailand on a watch list with unflattering company such as Afghanistan or Somalia.
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But while the UN hasn’t openly investigated child soldiering in Thailand, it has studied psychological damage to children in the insurgency-plagued provinces. A 2008 report determined that “daily activities now have the potential to place children into sudden contact with bloodshed, death, injury, fear and grief.”
“The gun,” Pratubjit said, “becomes a part of male pride in the deep south for both Buddhists and Muslims. The children just haven’t been informed enough about the dangers of guns.”