Thailand is decreasing security spending in its southern border provinces for the third time since 2018, citing a drop in insurgency-related violence, and amid a broader reduction in the defense budget with funds slated for helping fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
But critics said the government should spend more money on peace talks and reducing poverty, and less on intelligence and “attitude adjustment” programs in the violence-torn Deep South.
For 2021, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has proposed slashing the $309 million “comprehensive solution for the Deep South budget” by 9 percent, or $28.7 million.
His proposal includes allocating U.S. $7.1 billion for the defense ministry in 2021, a cut of $320 million from last year, according to a paper published by the government’s budget bureau that outlines the proposed spending plan, with line items listed in the baht currency.
During a recent parliament debate on the budget, a senior defense official justified the proposed cuts to security-related spending in the far south as being linked to relatively less bloodshed stemming from the insurgency.
“The fiscal year 2021 budget is based on the achievement in reduction of violence,” Gen. Chaichan Changmongkol, the deputy defense minister, told parliamentarians earlier this month. “From October 2019 to May 2020, there were 46 incidents, while the previous same period logged 141 incidents, a decline of 67.37 percent.”
At the national level, Thai officials have been debating a $105.8 billion budget for fiscal year 2021, which starts in October, seeking an increase in $3.2 billion. Expected to be voted on by the parliament in late September, the budget was tightened as the government copes with lost revenue caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The Thai economy remains highly uncertain and may perform worse than forecast if the COVID-19 outbreak continues,” Prayuth told lawmakers, according to Reuters news service.
In June, the parliament passed a bill to cut $2.8 billion from all ministries after Prayuth said money was needed to fight the pandemic because the Comptroller General’s emergency reserve had run low.
The defense ministry cut its overall budget by $574 million, the most by any ministry.
Deep South spending concerns
MP Rangsiman Rome, a member of the opposition Move Forward Party, expressed concern over proposed Deep South spending.
“The budget aimed at improving the Deep South situation through peace talks is the smallest of the security-related portion,” Rangsiman told BenarNews, adding he feared that funds would be used to enhance security intelligence operations.
About $50 million will be earmarked through the military’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) to enhance intelligence management, improve public security, help compensate victims of attacks in the region, and “attitude adjustment,” the budget bureau paper showed. Attitude adjustment sessions refer to ISOC officials summoning dissidents and calling on them to stop their actions against the government.
The National Security Council, which oversees the peace talks and is chaired by Prayuth, is to receive $173,000, a marginal decrease.
“That creates informants for the government but also creates mistrust and distrust among local residents and in the government itself,” Rangsiman said. “The solution the government should care to do is to put more money toward the peace talks.”
An analyst, meanwhile, warned that the budget reduction was premature, but agreed that funds earmarked for security operations should be spent on development projects in the troubled border region.
“The problems are complex especially on the socio-economy side – poverty, education and other development,” Professor Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch, a think-tank based in the region, told BenarNews.
“We need to look into longer-term efforts and not to cut the budget too early,” he said. “The security budget should be diverted to improve livelihoods instead.”
Since January 2004, Malay-speaking rebels in the Muslim-majority provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and four districts in Songkhla province reignited an insurgency against Thai security forces and soft targets over their demand for independence. More than 7,000 people have been killed since then, according to Deep South Watch.
The government earlier this year, assisted by a Malaysian facilitator, began direct talks with members of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the region’s most powerful rebel group.
Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh who leads Bangkok’s negotiating panel, said he could not predict whether violence would recede when asked if a target to reduce by half this year could be achieved even with a smaller security budget for the Deep South.
“For the violence, I don’t calculate how much it could be reduced, but other officers do monitor it. In the big picture, violent incidents have declined somewhat,” Wanlop told BenarNews.
The chief negotiator said he was awaiting approval from the Thai and Malaysian governments to meet the BRN panel in Kuala Lumpur next month should travel restrictions tied to the coronavirus pandemic be lifted.
For several years before launching direct talks with BRN, government negotiators held peace talks with MARA Patani, a panel representing BRN and other southern rebel groups and factions. But those talks yielded no breakthroughs.
Along with the peace talks, officers and soldiers from the 4th Army Region, which oversees security in the southern border region, have hosted forums involving residents to hear their concerns.
Rangsiman, a former student activist who helped lead anti-junta protests in the streets of Bangkok in the years that led up to Thailand’s 2019 general election, said many military projects in the south were divisive.
“I find a project that is aimed at promoting security, prosperity and sustainability at the tambon level [village cluster level] troublesome; it is aimed at brainwashing children to appreciate the military,” he said. “It aims to reach 1- to 5-year-old children who are too young to understand such efforts or post a threat to the nation.”
He suggested those projects should be cut and money be spent elsewhere.
Maj. Gen. Pramote Prom-in, the spokesman for ISOC-4, the military’s regional command, declined to comment for this report when contacted by BenarNews.
Kamonthicha Maktae, a small food vendor in Pattani, agreed that money should be spent for peace talks but she expressed concerned that development funding would not trickle down to her and others.
“The budget should be reduced because the government doesn’t really give money to the real good performers and if someone does well, it takes credit,” Kamonthicha told BenarNews. “But the budget for peace talks is necessary and local people should be able to safely voice their opinions about the process.”