Army chief forming new South unit
The road ahead is rough for army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha as he presses ahead with a plan to set up the 4th Army Corps, a new military unit, to tackle the insurgency in the deep South.
The proposed unit, which would be based at Vajiravudh Camp in Muang district of Nakhon Si Thammarat province, will be tabled for Defence Minister Sukumpol Suwanatat's stamp of approval before being forwarded for the cabinet's green light in September.
If everything goes as planned, the combat unit could be formed by 2014. A budget has been set aside for the mission and all military personnel would be equipped with weapons ready for operation a year later.
But Gen Prayuth faces an uphill struggle to turn the plan into reality as he has to win the support of ACM Sukumpol and the Defence Ministry. They see it as strategically and financially unnecessary as it could add more fat instead of muscle to the 4th Army Region.
The reality on the ground is that the army has sent more than 40,000 soldiers to the restive region, but there is no sign that the situation is improving. They run into opposition from villagers, leaving a question mark over the strategy to win the hearts and minds of locals despite joint efforts with other agencies, including the Internal Security Operations Command, to achieve that goal.
The idea to set up a new army unit in the troubled South is nothing new. When Sonthi Boonyaratglin was the army leader in 2006, he pushed for the establishment of the 15th Infantry Division in five years to be another unit to fight separatists.
Gen Sonthi once mulled changing the name of the unit to "the Army Corps for Protection and Development of Natural Resources" because of concerns about the sensitivity of southerners in the Muslim-dominated region. But the name change was later scrapped.
The 15th Infantry Division was approved and it has its headquarters inside the compound of the Ingkayuthaborihan Camp in Pattani's Nong Chik district. But that is the only progress that has been made with the project.
It is supposed to have 15,000 soldiers as part of a new force fighting insurgents alongside the 5th Infantry Division, which is the only combat unit under the 4th Army Region. However, despite being set up with a budget of more than 40 billion baht, it is struggling to recruit personnel.
Gen Sonthi's original idea was to recruit soldiers who were natives of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces so that locals would not be alienated by them. But he had second thoughts because of fears that it would be a golden opportunity for sympathisers or members of insurgent groups to join the army.
The army learned its lesson in January 2004 when it suspected Muslim conscripts of colluding with insurgents to raid the 4th Development Battalion in Cho Ai-rong district of Narathiwat and flee with a huge cache of weapons. The incident was viewed as the point when the southern violence resumed.
"The problem [with Gen Sonthi's plan] was it could have given sympathisers and insurgents a chance to be inside the army," an army source said. The recruitment criteria were expanded to include southerners from all 14 provinces.
Army officers are not keen to join the 15th Infantry Division because of an unattractive condition requiring them to work with the unit for at least five years before being promoted to commander.
Setting up the division gave the army a reason to buy about 15,000 Tavor 21 rifles from Israel to replace M16 rifles, the army's main weapon for decades.
The Council for National Security, led by Gen Sonthi, decided to equip soldiers with Tavor and Negev rifles, both from Israel, instead of the United States-made M16s, including the M16 A4, the new version manufactured by Colt Industries Inc.
The army planned to equip the 15th Infantry Division with Tavors but changed the plan and sent the rifles to the Special Warfare Unit and some units in Bangkok and the 1st Army Region because of fears that they could fall into the hands of insurgents, as happened back in 2004.
The plan to set up the 4th Army Corps runs against the philosophy of ACM Sukumpol, who favours downsizing the armed forces.
The Defence Ministry also plans to abolish the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Army Corps in 2016, although this might not be so easy as it has to find new positions for generals now attached to those units. One army corps consists of a lieutenant general, who is the commander, and two deputies of major general ranking. Another major general is a chief of staff. The proposal to set up the 4th Army Corps is not in line with the ministry's vision.
Army corps were previously envisaged to be key units when Thailand was involved in military conflicts. Now that the country is at peace with other countries, corps are viewed as units that join bilateral or multilateral military drills, including Cobra Gold with the US. This gives an opportunity for corps leaders to take the lead. A corps is a place for the army to find positions for high-ranking officers.
The army has formed two new units over the past year. The 3rd Cavalry Division, based in Nam Phong district of Khon Kaen province, was set up with a budget of 70 billion baht, while the 7th Infantry Division in Chiang Mai's Mae Rim district cost the army at least 50 billion baht.
In a report Gen Prayuth sent to the ministry, he said the 4th Army Corps is needed to fight all forms of security threat issues and it could ease the 4th Army Region's burden.
Its operation would go beyond the three southernmost provinces to cover Satun and Songkhla, the report added.
But ACM Sukumpol seemed unconvinced. "We have a chart showing the commanding position and working structure. I am not buying it yet, although the army said it was necessary. We need more talks," he said.
*Wassana Nanuam reports on military affairs for the Bangkok Post.
By Wassana Nanuam*
26 July 2012