Troop levels in Thailand’s conflict-ridden Deep South are at their lowest level since peak deployment nine years ago, through a gradual draw-down accompanied by the shifting of security responsibility to local armed groups.
Current troop strength in the southern border region is just over 20,000, slightly more than half the number of military personnel posted there in 2007, according to a spokesman for the military command in charge of Thailand’s south.
Virtually all troops from the country’s north, northeast and central regional commands have already left the Deep South, according to Col. Pramote Prom-in of the Fourth Army Area.
He said only three battalions of non-local troops remain, each made up of about 800 soldiers, remain in the Muslim-majority region where more than 6,000 people have died since 2004 in violence associated with a separatist insurgency.
The downsizing is balanced by the outsourcing of security duties to local armed units such as the Volunteer Defense Corps (Ar Sar - VDC) and the village defense volunteers (Chor Ror Bor - VDV), Pramote told BenarNews.
The total security presence, including those groups and police, is around 50,000, in an area of 1.7 million residents, 80 percent of whom are Malay-speaking Muslims.
“It will not be a complete replacement as the 15th Infantry Division of the Fourth Army Area command will oversee the day-to-day operation in this region,” Pramote said.
The gradual pullout started in 2011, with the largest draw-down being 8,000 military personnel in 2015 alone, he said.
Giving Volunteer Units Bigger Role
The volunteer units operate under the Interior Ministry, not the Defense Ministry.
The Volunteer Defense Corps receive basic military training from army and police. They function as security details for provincial officers and receive a monthly salary from the Interior Ministry.
Village Defense Volunteer units receive 20,000 baht ($578) per month per unit for basic things such as snacks and coffee. Members are given shotguns and trained by local military units. They function more or less as part of neighborhood watch scheme.
Col. Pramote added that about 40 percent of the remaining 20,000-plus soldiers are Rangers, a significant number of whom are local Malay Muslims. These paramilitary forces are not part of the regular armed forces but are locally recruited and trained by the Thai Army.
The rangers form light infantry units and are posted in remote areas where they conduct long-range reconnaissance patrols, as well as search and destroy operations to flush out insurgent units on the army’s behalf.
‘Tired of violence’
The peak of the troop strength in this historically contested region was in 2007 when the total number of armed security personnel stood at about 70,000. Just over half of these personnel were members of the armed forces.
Four years later, in 2011, the military decided to start to downsize and hand out security duties to locally hired militia in the three southernmost provinces – Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat – as well as the four Malay-speaking districts in Songkhla province.
The same year also saw an additional 1,700 police officers being hired in the region, Pramote said.
He conceded that the current troop strength reflected a sharp drop from 2007, but insisted that locally hired forces were ready and able to take over the security work.
Other factors that added to the confidence of the military include the argument that a growing number of residents are siding with the government.
“The people are tired of the violence,” Pramote said.
Moreover, he added, the overall number of violence incidents has also dropped dramatically.
Military presence remains significant: Security expert
According to Deep South Watch (DSW), a think-tank attached to the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani province, between 2004-2007, the average number of insurgency-related violent incidents per year was 1,926.
From 2009-2014, the annual figure dropped by about half to 1,027 incidents year. The past two years saw a further drop to about 60-70 incidents per months, or 840 annually.
DSW’s director, Assistant Professor Srisompob Jitpiromsri, said outsourcing security work to local militia was part of the military’s long-term strategy to reduce personnel and cut costs.
“The presence and number of the military personnel is still significant and the military operation will remain pretty much the same. The trade off is that the Royal Thai Army will be able to reduce spending significantly because of the withdrawal of troops but efficiency in the on-the-ground operations will inevitably be reduced because local militia will not have the same capability as the regular soldiers,” Srisompob said.
Suhaimee Dulasa, the director of foreign relations for the Patani Institute, a local civil society organization, said, “A professional army, if properly trained, should be in better position to carry out peace-building operation in a conflict such as this one in the Pattani region. Arming local civilians and putting their lives on the line is not the solution.”
“Moreover, meaningful changes can only come about if the Thai Army comes to the understanding that military means will not solve this long-standing conflict. The Thai state will have to open up political space for meaningful discussion to get to the root causes if they want to resolve this conflict,” Suhaimee said.