From Cold War to the 'Tor Chor Dor'
Desmond Ball, the professor who helped avert nuclear holocaust during the global arms race and exposed the workings of US military installations in Australia, is also one of the foremost experts on ethnic conflict in Myanmar and Thailand's dizzying array of border paramilitaries
At the height of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War, US military strategists theorised that if tensions escalated, controlled nuclear strikes against the Soviets could force them to back down.
It took an Australian academic, professor Desmond Ball, to point out that nuclear war was inherently uncontrollable; once control centres were neutralised, a superpower would likely retaliate with as much of its arsenal as it could mobilise.
Mr Ball worked as a consultant for US president Jimmy Carter and secretary of state Robert McNamara, and his rational warnings about missile escalations may have helped avert a nuclear holocaust.
In a book honouring Mr Ball's strategic studies influence _ Insurgent Intellectual: Essays in Honour of Professor Desmond Ball _ 19 chapters on a wide range subjects from disparate contributors including a former US president and former Australian defence and foreign ministers corroborate Mr Ball's overarching influence in international intelligence and military assessments.
As the essays illustrate, for more than 40 years he has been a respected scholar in the fields of global signals intelligence, nuclear strategy and missile defence, and has chaired several think-tanks and strategic study institutes focusing on Asia-Pacific security. A self-styled ''military junkie'' and patriot, he sought a militarily more independent, modern and transparent Australia, while not averse to secrecy where it might benefit national defence.
While his books and essays on Northeast Asian hostilities, the China-India nuclear arms race and Myanmar's insurgent armies have failed to reach the same breadth of international readers, for those in the region they are of paramount importance.
He has also written several books on Thai paramilitaries, including on the black-shirt Rangers, the Thahan Phran; and the Or Sor, a paramilitary force based along the southern border with Myanmar; as well as a forthcoming two-volume book on the Border Patrol Police, known by their acronym Tor Chor Dor. He has argued that the Kingdom needs to rein in its paramilitary militias and that the army and police force require significant reform.
THE MAN WHO SAVED THE WORLD
As former US president Jimmy Carter writes in Insurgent Intellectual, ''Desmond Ball's counsel and cautionary advice based on deep research made a great difference to our collective goal of avoiding nuclear war.''
Strategists had thought that the US could hit Soviet targets in a way that controlled further escalation and forced Moscow to back down; Mr Ball was vocal in his assertion that the missile escalation was less borne out of a strategic concept than merely to foster technical innovation.
Ron Huisken points out in the book that the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 showed that deterrence not only has to work perfectly but also pre-emptively, a dangerous game to play when the superpowers had quickly deployable missiles that could level enemy cities within 26 minutes of being detected.
Mr Ball also investigated US intelligence facilities in Australia such as Pine Gap, North West Cape and Nurrungar, detailing whether they left Australia vulnerable to nuclear attack and if the increased risk was worth it. He was opposed to secrecy where it precluded democratic accountability and reasoned evaluation, but never exposed secrets he thought might affect national security.
As former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer writes, ''Australia's negotiating capacity is enhanced by the knowledge we have of people and issues relevant to the negotiation.'' While he disagreed with Mr Ball on many issues, he said the professor's viewpoints were never ill-informed and were often crucial to facilitating the national dialogue on defence. ''The establishment may or may not be right,'' Mr Downer adds. ''But they always have to be challenged.''
THE ASIAN WAY OF WAR
Mr Ball's insights into the security approaches of Asian governments have also been unparalleled. He has chaired or worked on several think-tanks and institutes such as the Council for Security Cooperation in Asia-Pacific and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He has commented on emerging power aspirations, particularly those of China, the region-wide aversion to transparency and, as contributors Brad Glosserman and Ralph Cossa point out, ''an Asian way of war which places less emphasis on the holding of territory, and greater emphasis on the exercise of other forms of military, economic and cultural hegemony, commitment to the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries''.
Mr Ball analysed intercepts about Indonesian incursions into Balibo in East Timor in 1975 when five journalists working for Australian news outlets were killed, probably deliberately, by Indonesian forces, despite Australia having had the intelligence and means to warn them.
He shone a light on the link between North Korea and Myanmar and Myanmar's nuclear ambitions, based on field interviews with refugees. Recent worries also include the real possibility of a nuclear arms race between India and China, and escalating diplomatic and military tensions in Northeast Asia.
As Pauline Kerr reminds us, Mr Ball has argued that ''Northeast Asia is strategically the most worrisome sub-region in the world. It is wracked with inter-state tensions and disputes. The possibility of one or more of these degenerating into large-scale conflict is palpable. The consequences would be horrendous.''
MIND OVER MYANMAR
Towards the end of the 1990s, Mr Ball became very interested in Myanmar and the paramilitaries operating along the Thai-Myanmar border.
Ron Huisken quotes him as saying that ''some of the largest conventional military operations since World War II had been conducted on and near the Thailand-Burma [Myanmar] border but no one had ever taken any notice''.
Funding many of these operations on the Myanmar side has long involved the sale of illicit drugs.
Journalist Phil Thornton points out in the book that Mr Ball once estimated ''About 50% of amphetamines and about 85% of heroin used by addicts in Australia comes from Burma. The regime can't deny its involvement in the drug trade. The Burmese [Myanmar] military and its intelligence apparatus provide security and protection for the traffickers, guards for warehouses and safe passage for the drug caravans crossing the border into Thailand.''
Mr Ball has been sympathetic to the plight of Myanmar's ethnic minorities and drawn the world's attention at times to abuses suffered by the Karanni at the hands of the Myanmar army.
''It's extremely bleak for the ethnic groups,'' Thornton quotes him as saying. ''The Karen have about 5,000 fighters and about 1,000 of those are full time. The Burmese army ... is shooting, torching and relocating any villages that are left. The [regime] is attempting to wipe them out. Use them for slave labour and use them to clear landmines. ... there have been incidents where the Burmese army and their allies, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, would go into villages and take 20 or 30 young women and rape them for days and then kill them ... you literally have more than 600,000 people on the run, hiding in jungles and the mountains. The murder, rapes, beatings and gross abuses by the Burmese [Myanmar] army soldiers are quite sickening _ there's no way I could return to Australia and pretend I can't do something about it.''
Mr Ball is sympathetic to the ethnic villagers because unlike many academics he spends much time in the field. The myriad minute details he collects and notes, and his time with people directly impacted by conflict make him adept at understanding local and regional psychology as well as their military capabilities. He travels rough in order to meet army soldiers, rebel fighters and ethnic villagers on their home ground. Last year he was honoured by the Karen National Liberation Army with an award recognising his contributions to their struggle.
UNRAVELLING THE BORDER ORDER
Protecting Thailand from incursions from Myanmar is less in the hands of regular army and police forces than it is in a dizzying array of paramilitaries. Mr Ball has written several books with local publisher White Lotus focusing on these militias' origins and functions, and the need for reform.
The Boys in Black is one book about the paramilitary border force known as the Thahan Phran, often referred to in English as Rangers, although the name means ''hunter-soldiers''. Founded by the army in 1978 to combat Thailand's communists, the force drew recruits from poor villages the length of the country and later became the Kingdom's first line of defence along the Myanmar border. During the red shirt protests he told Thornton it was possible that Thahan Phran soldiers comprised the armed, notorious and almost mythical ''men in black'' who defended the red shirt protestors.
Another book cowritten with David Scott Mathieson on the Or Sor and other paramilitary groups such as the Chor Ror Bor argues that Thailand's paramilitaries need to be reined in and the army and police forces reorganised and reformed. Mr Ball is quoted by Nicholas Farrelly as saying Thailand must get ''rid of these paramilitaries, disbanding all of those organisations. Building up the professionalism of the army, getting the army back to the barracks and out of business and the corruption that infuses large parts of the army and particularly in the case of the drastic reform of the Thai police so that they can actually take responsibility for enforcement of law and order, rather than the very gross levels of corruption which infuse the Thai police today.''
Key to this, he argues, is a professional army, clean police force and proper border patrol force. ''With proper coordination from the top down, then you would be able to address a large number of the security problems which currently face Thailand and allow Thailand to really fulfil many of the elements of democracy and peace and stability that we'd like to see in the future in Thailand.''
Another book is forthcoming on the Border Patrol Police, known as the Tor Chor Dor, whose leadership is more involved with the palace and the yellow shirt leaders, although many of the members at the lower levels identify more with the red shirts. Thornton writes that Mr Ball's upcountry searches for musical CDs referencing the Tor Chor Dor can border on the obsessive. According to his local publisher, White Lotus, the investigation will likely be released in two volumes towards the end of the year.
His own political sympathies lie most often with the common people. Mr Farrelly quotes him as saying, ''If it wasn't for the relationship which red shirts, for example, have with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, then I would be on their side. Because I believe that the longer term cause of justice, of fairness, is on their side ... sooner or later if Thailand is to get through this traumatic period that it is going through now, it is only going to get through it once the demands and interests, the causes of justice are acknowledged in favour of those poorer people in those outer lying provinces. And unless that happens ... Thailand is in real, real trouble.''
HAWK, LEFTIST OR PATRIOT?
In a largely academic and heavily footnoted _ and sometimes bizarrely punctuated _ study on one of the hemisphere's foremost strategic thinkers, it is still possible to get a more personal picture of the man who grew up in Timboon in rural Victoria.
''In a world dominated by sharply pressed creases [military planners] and the precision that comes with scientific equations _ think overpressure, single-shot kill capability, circular error probability, and other detailed calculations _ Des is, well, 'rumpled','' write Brad Glosserman and Ralph Cossa on his propensity to appear underdressed.
Ron Huisken admits, ''He also lured me into my one and only experiment with a 'prohibited substance'.''
Mr Ball is hard to pin down politically. ''He is not an ideologue of any kind and labels like hawk, realist, constructivist and so on seem quite out of place,'' writes Mr Huisken. ''Des is what I would call a forensic analyst with a work ethic of Dickensian proportions.''
Brian Job and Anthony Milner comment that: ''Ball always has all the facts, and his facts are always correct.''
Mr Ball is a strong advocate of the Australian Defence Force being equipped with the most modern weapons platforms and systems available, but he has opposed Australia's involvement in every war since and including Vietnam, as he finds they've damaged Australia's ability to defend itself and influence the local strategic environment.
Former Australian defence minister Kim Beazley writes, ''He was and is essentially a man of the left. But he also transcended the left. His intellectual curiosity compelled him to seek a deep understanding of the global military distribution of power.''
Euan Graham writes of Mr Ball's interest in naval affairs, the maritime domain and, eyebrow raisingly, Collingwood Football Club. ''Where the latter's fortunes and his loyalties are concerned, Des' academic detachment has been known to desert him.''
It is through Phil Thornton, however, that we get the most humanising picture of Mr Ball: ''The professor cares. He is switched on to who is getting killed and who is doing the killing, and more importantly he is prepared to make a stand by speaking out or offering advice to the downtrodden.''
DIALOGUE WITH DESMOND BALL
Mr Ball spoke with Spectrum about some of his research along the Myanmar border, Thailand's paramilitaries and broader regional concerns.
You've written about the need for Thailand to reform its border paramilitaries. Do forces such as the Thahan Phran, Or Sor and the Tor Chor Dor still serve a function that regular army and police forces cannot fill?
It's a budget issue. With minimal training and weaponry the paramilitaries cost half as much. The Chor Ror Bor [Village Defence Volunteers] get three days of training a year _ perhaps only one day of that is actual weapons training. They were issued with 40,000 shotguns in the South, and 30,000 of those just disappeared. There are more than 100,000 volunteers, in many villages in border areas. Like the Or Sor, most of them don't even have uniforms. They've lasted because they're very cheap.
The Border Patrol Police, the Tor Chor Dor, is by far the most professional and well equipped _ among the best in the world. Their main base has been in Hua Hin since 1953, so it's close to the palace, although some of the leaders have been closely allied to the red shirts.
You've spoken before on the possibility that the armed 'men in black' guarding the red shirt protesters in 2010 were gleaned from the Thahan Phran.
Most definitely. The attack by rocket-propelled grenade that killed Col Romklao Thuwatham on April 10, 2010, had the hallmarks of the 'men in black'. They are a militia for hire. Now they're the fastest growing security group in the South. Normal infantry have been reduced, but Thahan Phran forces have tripled. They started recruiting women five years ago, and now they're one of the main groups in the region, minimally trained, corrupt and allied with criminal groups. Many killings have been committed by the Thahan Phran.
How can they be reformed? How can the army and police forces be restructured?
In 2000, the government abolished the Thahan Phran headquarters in Pak Tong Chai and tried to put the forces under army control. Some Thahan Phran soldiers are quite good. It's a light infantry for less than half the cost, so the army can save in other areas. But with these groups there are coordination problems, different command chains and they're very corrupt. The inessential paramilitaries should be eliminated or absorbed by the police, the army and the Border Patrol Police.
Police reform is more urgent than the army. Army reforms were set back under Thaksin, but they're more accountable. The Pheu Thai government isn't very interested in reforming the police, but they're by far the most corrupt security agency.
You've also written a lot on atrocities committed by the Myanmar army. With the country's recent political reforms, do you see the army now also reining in its abuses?
On the contrary, it's getting worse, at least in Karenni areas. You have military front companies going for minerals, resources, plantations. It's a very grave situation for the villagers.
Will the planned political integration of Asean help Southeast Asia on the security front?
There is much talk of Asean integration and 'one vision, one identity, one community' and such. But it's hard to see much changing. Yes, there are centuries of mistrust between countries, but also a lack of capacity, you still have dictatorships in the region.
Do you still see Northeast Asia as the most worrying sub-region in the world?
Yes, and the arms race is getting worse. In Asia 85% of defence expenditure is in China, the Koreas, Taiwan and Japan. It's not just China at fault but mutual dynamics. There are no constraints at the moment, and it's unlikely the countries will accept constraints coming in from outside. Even the Six-Party Talks on North Korea have had minimal effect.
Do you see parallels there with the Cold War?
In Northeast Asia the situation is worse. The Cold War had limitations, constraints, and many treaties such as Salt [Strategic Arms Limitation Talks]. There were regulations and some stability; different rules applied at the time. When things go wrong in Northeast Asia, things will turn very badly.
About the author
- Writer: Ezra Kyrill Erker