BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - If 60,000-plus security personnel assigned to quell the insurgency in Thailand's southernmost provinces are not able to make the distinction between ordinary villagers and separatist militants, then one has to wonder what use a drone would be.
According to recent reports, the Army is eyeing more drones for use in the historically contested region where nearly 7,000 people have died from insurgency-related violence since January 2004.
It is not clear how more drones would strengthen military capability. The Army has said it will use the drones to patrol high-risk areas to replace soldiers and reduce the number of casualties.
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.
Unlike the previous wave of armed insurgency that surfaced in the 1960s but went under in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the cells of the current wave of insurgents do not position themselves on hilltops and mountains. Indeed, these cells are very much part of the community in which they reside.
Moreover, the theatre of violence is no longer in the remote wooded areas. Roadside bombings that are usually followed by gunfights, as well as car bombs, are often carried out in towns and cities.
An insurgent may be tending his goats and tapping his rubber one minute, and set off a roadside bomb the next. Is the Army expecting to use drones to document that very moment when the insurgent switched roles?
Instead of useless drones, much like the overpriced US$10 million (S$13.64 million) blimp that was barely aloft or operational, the Thai Army might want to reconsider its standard operating procedure.
For example, it makes no sense to have armoured personnel vehicles running around Bangkok or other parts of the country except near the northern border where drug caravans from the Myanmar side of the border constantly look for entry points. Yet soldiers in the far South move around in pickup trucks that, once hit by roadside bombs, are ripped into pieces, often beyond recognition.
The numerous checkpoints do nothing to deter the activities of insurgents. Often, these checkpoints are not even manned. The orange cones, and sometimes bunkers, are there to force the vehicles to slow down - and do even more to irritate the local residents.
Perhaps the Army and the military government need to rethink their whole concept of counter-insurgency. Any classical understanding of counter-insurgency is that it is primarily a political struggle between the state and a belligerent.
Because the violence is political in nature, it is of utmost importance that the country's Armed Forces conduct themselves in a manner that enhances the state's legitimacy in the eyes of the local people and wins them over.
If the past 13 years tell us anything, it is that the Army has to win the local people's hearts and minds.
The military keeps pointing to annual statistics. True, the number of violent incidents may be down compared to 10 years ago. But the intensity is still very much there. Just look at the series of roadside bomb attacks in recent months, not to mention the daring carjacking of seven pickup trucks to be used for car bombs.
Insurgents thrive on social gaps, such as the historical mistrust between the state and a minority group. Thailand has yet to figure out how to close this gap, partly because the government is not willing to make any political concession to the Malays of Patani.
It's less of a headache for the generals and other policymakers to ignore this gap and paint the insurgents as a bunch of drug-crazed youth who are embracing a flawed interpretation of Islam. Meanwhile, bigger bombs are going off, ripping Army pickup trucks beyond recognition, killing soldiers one by one.
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