Hundreds of villagers in Thailand’s Deep South region on Tuesday protested a plan by military officials to resettle former insurgents who recently returned from Malaysia and enrolled in the army’s Bring People Home Project rehabilitation program.
About 500 protesters from Tambon Sukirin in insurgency-wracked Narathiwat province said they were worried about their safety and environmental issues.
Maj. Gen. Wichan Suksong, the deputy commander of the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) in Thailand's southern border region, said the military planned to resettle 105 people, representing 23 families, in a 276-acre area in Tambon.
The protesters expressed their concerns during their meeting with Wichan and other officials.
“The villagers studied the project and found that the resettlement would affect the wilderness, environment, tourism and create fear of safety,” said a leader of Ban Leelanond Village who asked not to be named for fear of possible reprisal.
“All the people in the three villages would like to beg the commander of the Fourth Army Region to rethink the project. We would submit the names of all the people who disagree with the move,” he said, adding there was land more suited for the project between Sukirin and Ja-nae districts in Narathiwat.
Wichan tried to quell protesters’ safety fears, saying those in the program are not involved in violent attacks.
“I guarantee that the 105 people we are going to move to Chulabhorn Pattana XII are not bad guys and are not trouble-makers,” Wichan said.
“But some 30 years ago, they were involved in situations in their areas. They were afraid of authorities and fled to Malaysia,” he said. “Now they are 70-year-olds and they are not attackers.”
In early February, Lt. Gen. Piyawat Nakwanich, the army's commander in the region, announced a revamp of the Bring People Home Project, which aims to rehabilitate former insurgents and reintegrate them into society. He also announced that 288 people were enrolled in the project.
Those involved in the resettlement project belonged to rebel group Patani United Liberation Organization. They went through the repatriation process in mid-February.
A 65-year-old man, who identified himself as Lo, told BenarNews in mid-February that he fled Thailand to Malaysia 30 years ago. He returned home with his five children and many grandchildren.
“I am very glad. Thank you for the project. The next thing I want is a job,” Lo said.
Wichan said the military had allotted 6 million baht (U.S. $189,000) for supplies for 30 houses to be built by the enrollees along with land to farm.
“They are Thais and the commander brought them out, so we need to take care of them. We used to help the (Malaysian) members of the Malayan Communist Party, so there is no reason to not help Thais,” he said, referring to the Chinese-Malaysian communists who fought Malaysian authorities during the 1970s through the 1990s.