Updated at 10:51 a.m. ET on 2017-09-25
In its efforts to farm out security duties to officials at the village level in Thailand’s Deep South, the nation’s military has taken a significant step forward by starting to re-organize the Tambon Defense Force (TDF) in the troubled border region.
But it won’t necessarily be smooth sailing because rebels are committed to a campaign of violence as they pursue their separatist cause.
A tambon is a local government unit that encompasses a cluster of villages. It is an administrative subdivision just below the district and provincial levels.
Like the village chiefs and his staff, the head of a tambon is known in Thai as a kamnan. This official, once elected, can stay in the post until he or she reaches the mandatory retirement age of 60. Kamnans are issued a handgun and shotgun, largely for their personal protection.
As with the provincial governor and district chiefs, the kamnan falls under the Ministry of Interior (MOI) chain-of-command, and mainly oversees administrative details in the tambon, such as births, deaths and the registration of homes. He or she is also tasked with mediating small disputes among villagers.
For the past 13 years, since an insurgency resurfaced in the historically contested far south, where the vast majority of locals identify themselves as Malay Muslims, the Thai military has been looking for ways to bring these village-based MOI officials closer to its line of command.
Many police and soldiers in the region have quietly accused the kamnans and village chiefs – especially those in remote areas – of turning a blind eye to separatist militants in their villages and tambons.
Thai security officials take their silence as tacit support for the insurgents but, they admit, there isn’t much they can do about this in legal terms. Other officials say the silence is for their survival’s sake.
Insurgents, for their part, claim that kamnan and village chiefs share the same historical mistrust of the Thai state and therefore they support their separatist ideology.
Most village officials declined to talk about this on the record for fear of reprisal from either state security officials or insurgents.
However, many of them admit they don’t trust the Thai state. They also say they know the insurgents and are aware of militant activities in their respective communities.
Connecting 262 tambons to army grid
Efforts by the state to win the hearts and minds of people in the Deep South, meanwhile, have made little headway.
The region is still very much marginalized.
Moreover, the Patani Malay historical and cultural narrative is not included in the state-constructed narrative. The armed insurgency was largely a reaction to the government’s policy of assimilation that the Malays feel comes at the expense of their cultural and religious identity.
In addition, a culture of impunity remains a big problem. Rights abuses are well documented. Yet no government official has ever been charged with any crime.
TDF will be integrated into the military’s security grid in the Deep South, which is made up of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat provinces and four Malay-speaking districts in Songkhla province, according to one military intelligence officer.
In the past, the Thai military obtained help from local villagers by establishing a Village Defense Volunteer force across the region. Because its armed members are volunteers, they receive no salary. Teams of volunteers work in isolation, not linking up with their counterparts in other villages.
Each team receives a monthly allowance of 20,000 baht (U.S. $604) for coffee, tea and other sundries to get them through the night, as they man their posts and patrol the village perimeter.
The re-organized TDF, on the other hand, will connect all 262 tambons in the Deep South under the army’s security grid. This means that the kamnan, the village chiefs, and his team – all of whom receive their salaries from the MOI – will receive the same alerts as the security personnel in case of any threats or attacks mounted by insurgents.
TDF will not take part in search-and-destroy operations targeting insurgents’ hideouts or makeshift training camps, according to one senior military officer in Pattani.
But members of the TDF will be asked to go on foot patrols with soldiers or man army checkpoints, which will put them in the line of fire from insurgents.
Separatist militants don’t usually target these village officials unless one spies for the Thai military or police.
But because of the job description, participation in the TDF will put these officials at risk. How the separatist militants will perceive their participation remains to be seen.
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security analyst and consultant. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.
An earlier version incorrectly implied that the Tambon Defense Force was a new initiative.