Recent news that the Thai government is distributing more weapons to security outfits in the south has been greeted with alarm and dismay.
Alarm, because it risks escalating tensions already strained by the separatist insurgency and heavy troop presence.
Dismay, because it dims the chances of getting insurgents back to peace talks that have been suspended since late last year.
Last week, the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) told Agence France-Presse that some 2,700 assault rifles have been distributed to defence volunteers in the southern border provinces over the past two months.
This was to help the people protect their own community from the bombings and ambushes on both soldiers and civilians.
The separatist insurgency in Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and a section of Songkhla has claimed about 6,000 lives since 2004.
Last Friday, ISOC spokesman Pramote Prom-In defended the move, saying it was merely upgrading the weaponry of already armed security units in the south, rather than putting weapons in the hands of untrained villagers.
“It’s not like we are arming people to fight each other,” he told The Straits Times. “We are arming these guards so that they can perform their duty in keeping the environment safe.”
The distinction gives scant comfort to locals like People’s College director Wae-Isma-Ael Naesae in Pattani province.
“The government needs quick results,” he said. “That’s why it arms civilians who have a different view (from the militants).”
But it will merely broaden the violence and create “war”, he said.
To put things in perspective, an array of civilian, paramilitary and full military security units already exist in the deep south.
Over the years, locals have been roped in as “village defence volunteers” directed by the interior ministry, or as “village protection volunteers”, overseen by the Royal Aide-de-Camp department under Queen Sirikit’s patronage.
Other individuals undergo more training as paramilitary rangers, or as part of the Voluntary Defence Corp.
All are armed to varying degrees. Buddhist villagers who feel under siege in the Malay- Muslim dominated region have also bought guns to defend themselves.
While the extra weaponry will merely add to the heavily militarised landscape, it could also sharpen communal tensions, warn local civil society groups.
The long-running conflict is borne out of the locals’ resentment against the Thai state’s suppression of their language and culture.
The region was part of the Patani sultanate until it was annexed by what was then known as Siam a century ago.
The heavy presence of troops, plus alleged torture and extra-judicial killings of suspected insurgents, has hardened the resentment against the state.
The mood seemed to soften when the previous government under then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced the start of Malaysia-facilitated peace talks with insurgent group Barisan Revolusi Nasional in February last year.
The state’s chief negotiator then said he was open to more political autonomy for the region.
But the talks stalled some months after, and were then put on ice as seven months of street protests turned the Yingluck administration into a lame-duck government.
Last month, post-coup deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwan said a new chief negotiator had been chosen. He also said he would “try to bring peace within a year”.
For the most part, the military government has been slow in restarting talks with southern insurgents as it asserts its political dominance in the capital.
Mathus Anuvatudom, a lecturer at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, warns that the delay in talks has “created a lot of distrust” on the ground.
“Under the military regime, the movement is reluctant to talk any more. This (weapons) policy will make it harder for them to talk,” he said.