Thailand’s military government says it plans to deploy drones to the insurgency-stricken Deep South for reconnaissance flights to alert army patrols and other security personnel to imminent rebel attacks and roadside bombings.
The military will deploy at least three unarmed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to carry out eye-in-the-sky surveillance in dozens of districts in the southern border region as a way to reduce casualties among more than 60,000 troops stationed there, officials said this week.
“I intend to use three to four drones … in the 37 districts of the Deep South to do reconnaissance and attack-related intelligence work before the soldiers would reach the ground,” Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Udomdej Sitabutr told reporters in Bangkok.
“The insurgents are not far away from the kill zone to trigger the bombs,” he added.
The deputy defense minister touched on the plan to use UAVs while announcing that the government planned to allocate 13.2 billion baht (U.S. $397.5 million) for the next fiscal year in order to tackle unrest in the Deep South and other regional challenges.
Udomdej also heads a so-called forward cabinet appointed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha to deal specifically with matters in the far south.
Between October 2016 and September 2017, as many as 233 soldiers, policemen and defense volunteers have been killed in roadside bombings and other types of ambushes laid by insurgents in the Deep South, according to the regional office of Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC).
Close to 7,000 people, including civilians, have been killed and 15,000 injured in violence associated with a separatist insurgency in the predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking border region since 2004. Since then, Thailand has spent some 300 billion (U.S. $9.03 billion) in trying to settle the conflict.
Since 2015, the Thai junta has engaged various rebel groups in the south in peace talks, but the two sides have yet to agree to a limited ceasefire. Lately, the Thai military has re-deployed units made up of troops who know the local language and culture, because they were born in or raised in the Deep South.
It is not yet known how much money will be budgeted for the acquisition of a fleet of drones, or what type or model of UAVs will be used in surveillance flights.
“We have not had details in depth,” Col. Pramote Prom-in, a spokesman for ISOC in the Deep South, told BenarNews, saying that plan was “still in the study stage.”
Col. Sithisak Jenbanjong, the commander of the Army’s 41st Ranger Regiment, in the Deep South, welcomed the plan.
Last month, four army rangers were killed and five other soldiers and a civilian were injured in a roadside bombing in Saiburi, a district of Pattani province. The bomb exploded as soldiers approached a booby-trapped pick-up truck.
“I think it is a good idea,” Sithisak told BenarNews.
“At least the insurgents would think twice before planting [a] bomb … I wish the drones also had the ability to destroy the bomb,” he said.
But this is not the first time that drones have been deployed to the Deep South, according to Thai media reports. In September 2016, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon announced that drones would be used to help safeguard railway routes in the Deep South from rebel attacks by helping land-based security forces guard the tracks.
However, the Nation, one of Thailand’s leading English-language newspapers, published an editorial earlier this month questioning the wisdom and effectiveness of the government’s plan to deploy more drones to the south.
“It is not clear how more drones would strengthen military capability. The [a]rmy has said it will use the drones to patrol high-risk areas to replace soldiers and reduce the number of casualties,” according to the editorial.
“The use of drones would make sense if the Thai Army was fighting an enemy that they could identify. Patani Malay insurgents are not in uniform and do not control any geographical area in the region. Instead, they have captured the mental space of much of the local Muslim population who share the same historical mistrust of the Thai state,” the newspaper said.