The Royal Thai Army has formed a new Thahan Phran (or Ranger) regiment for special duties in Chiang Saen, Chiang Khong and Wiang Kaen districts along the Mekong River in Chiang Rai province. The regiment has a skull and dagger insignia, and is responsible for curbing human trafficking and other illegal movements across the Mekong into Thailand from northwestern Laos.

Several different companies from the regiment, which is headquartered at Pakthongchai near Khorat, have been deployed to the Mekong districts since 2005. These include 945 Company, which was based at Vieng Mok in December 2005; 963 Company, which was based at Doi Pha Tang in 2005-06; 949 Company, which has a base just on the southern outskirts of Chiang Khong; 951 Company, which was at Doi Pha Tang in June 2007; 958 Company, which had camps from Huay Yen to Ban Don Dee, on the river road from Chiang Khong to Chiang Saen in 2006; and 948 Company, which was camped along that road in June 2007. One of the camps is directly opposite Ban Nam Koeng in Laos, and the Rangers cooperate closely with the Laotian authorities, informing them when they force illegal crossers to return to the Lao side.

This area has become the new vector for trafficking narcotics into Thailand, as well as women from Burma, Laos and China. In the last few years, there has also been a substantial number of North Korean citizens being trafficked into this area of Thailand. Estimates vary, but the total number caught since 2004 is likely to exceed 1,000. Those arrested are taken to Chiang Rai jail, then transferred to a jail in Bangkok before being resettled in South Korea. After the long and harrowing journey from North Korea down through China, and then through northwestern Laos, they are often beaten and abused when arrested in Thailand.

[Des Ball is the author of The Boys in Black: The Thahan Phran (Rangers), Thailand’s Para-military Border Guards (White Lotus, Bangkok, 2004), and co-author with David Mathieson of Militia Redux: Or Sor and the Revival of Paramilitarism in Thailand (White Lotus, Bangkok, 2007).]