PTSD killings must put military on alert

PTSD killings must put military on alert

A ranger's shadow is cast over the site of a roadside bomb which was cordoned off for forensic examination in Yala province. (AFP photo)
A ranger's shadow is cast over the site of a roadside bomb which was cordoned off for forensic examination in Yala province. (AFP photo)

On Saturday night, a soldier of the Royal Thai Army (RTA), picked up an M-16 rifle in the headquarters of a ranger company in Pattani's Yaring district and opened fire, killing a soldier and a ranger. This was not an isolated incident.

On March 23, 2014, a soldier shot dead a colleague at an operational base in Yala's Muang district.  On May 16, 2014, a ranger shot dead two of his officers and wounded a third on a base in Pattani's Sai Buri district. On May 28, 2014, a Royal Thai Navy sailor shot and wounded a colleague in Pattani. On Oct 12, 2014, a ranger shot dead two colleagues who were sleeping at their base and wounded another. On Oct 15, 2014, a ranger tried to shoot a colleague with whom he was drinking with, killing his five-year old daughter.

Three weeks later, a drunk ranger shot and killed three colleagues and wounded two more after an argument at a remote camp in Pattani's Nong Chik district. He tried to kill himself, but survived. On Dec 27, 2014, a soldier killed himself with his M-16 at a base in Pattani's Nong Chik district. On Dec 30, 2014, a ranger shot dead his sergeant at a roadblock in Pattani's Panare district, after an argument.  

Since March 2014, there have been nine separate incidents in which a member of the Royal Thai Armed Forces or a ranger has turned their weapons on colleagues. In two cases, alcohol was a factor, but in all of the cases the real cause was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Five rangers, three RTA soldiers and a sailor have been implicated in these attacks that killed three soldiers, nine rangers, and a five-year-old girl. Five rangers and a sailor were also wounded in the attacks. One soldier committed suicide and one ranger attempted suicide.

To put it into perspective, between January 2014 and April 2015, only 12 soldiers and 39 rangers have been killed in the deep South. In other words, in the past 16 months, 25% and 23% of the casualties involving soldiers and rangers, respectively, have come at their own hands or at the hands of their colleagues. Of the 88 rangers wounded since January 2014, five — or 6% — have been wounded by colleagues.

These numbers are indicative of more than just routine combat stress. In the US military, an estimated 11-20% of veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq have experienced PTSD, and today more service men and women die from suicide than combat related injuries. But the number of force-on-force casualty numbers is nowhere close to the rates seen in Thailand. 

What's going on? 

First, rangers comprised 56% of the perpetrators and 74% of the victims of these attacks. The RTA announced that it would withdraw five battalions of troops from the deep South, starting from April 2015.

Nearly 23,000 rangers were responsible for much of the static defence work in the region. But now they are increasingly doing offensive operations and active patrols. 

Although their equipment has improved since 2004, they have less body armour, kevlar helmets, use old weapons, and have fewer armoured vehicles than their RTA counterparts. 

On top of that, most rangers are recruits from the Northeast and are reviled by the local population for their alleged human rights abuses.

Although rangers are technically part of the RTA chain of command, they are not as well trained or disciplined, yet their responsibilities, especially since the coup, have grown.

Though the leadership would like to recruit more rangers locally, they are often the dregs of society, while they and their families are under intense pressure from the insurgents, adding to their stress.

Second, while the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and RTA leadership proudly assert that violent incidents have dropped 60% and the number of casualties by 47.4% between September 2014 and April 2015, that's too simplistic. 

The rate of violence changes from month to month. For example, violence soared in April to the highest level since the coup. During that month, 32 people were killed, more than the first three months of 2014 combined, and back to the five-year norm.

There were over 50% more people wounded than the first quarter of 2014 average. The average number of casualties since the coup fell to 47 per month, but in April it was 71.

The number of bombings and shootings hit the highest level since the coup. 

While civilians comprise the majority of the casualties, security forces remain the primary target of the insurgents. Between the May 22 coup and the end of April 2015, 47 of the 194 people killed (24%) and 158 of the 412 wounded (38%), were security forces. 

In short, it remains a very dangerous place for security forces. 

The government can claim all the victory it wants, but local security forces do not necessarily share that optimism.

Third, the government keeps on insisting that it is committed to restarting a peace process. It is very hard to take them seriously. Nothing is on offer to the insurgents.

The NCPO's idea of peace is the insurgents giving up the fight without making any meaningful concessions. This is nonsense.

Security forces have, without a doubt, made insurgent operations across the deep South more difficult through a more robust security presence.  And yet, they will never defeat the insurgency militarily.

It is a political dispute that requires a negotiated and durable political settlement. 

These figures should be a wake-up call to the senior military leadership. In November 2014, army chief Gen Udomdej Sitabutr promised more counsellors and monks to counsel those suffering from PTSD. 

The RTA has rewarded itself with a 218% increase in military expenditure since the 2006 coup.

The government's proposed 2016 defence budget of 207 billion baht, is 7% above 2015's figure, despite no changes in the security environment.

It is important for them to dedicate more funds to the well-being of their personnel. 

But even that would be insufficient. The uncertainty of combat, not knowing where the next bomb is hidden, is juxtaposed by the certainty that the conflict in the deep South is not going to end any time soon, despite what their superiors may say. 

Zachary Abuza, PhD, is a specialist in Southeast Asian politics and security issues. He is the author of 'Muslims, Politics and Violence in Indonesia', 'Conspiracy of Silence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand', 'Militant Islam in Southeast Asia'.

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