Thailand has revamped a program that aims to rehabilitate southern insurgents who lay down their weapons by focusing on hardcore rebels requiring special training, the Thai army’s regional commander said.
The Thai military sharply reduced the number of enrollees and changed criteria for people signing up for the Bring People Home Project, which encourages rebels to surrender and transition back to civilian life in their home villages, he said.
“We reset the program, adopting all new measures,” Lt. Gen. Piyawat Nakwanich, commander of the army’s Fourth Region, which covers the troubled Thai Deep South, told reporters earlier this month.
In 2017, Thailand’s defense minister ordered a review of the program, changes to it and closer vetting of applicants after one of its participants allegedly took part in a bombing that injured scores of civilians outside a department store in Pattani province last May.
Piyawat was speaking at a Feb. 2 ceremony in Yarang, a district of Pattani, where 288 men identified as separatist insurgents surrendered symbolically to the authorities as program enrollees, although they had already formally turned themselves in. The military was parading them before the local press as enrollees in the revamped program.
In the months leading up to the attack on the Big C department store, military officials claimed that as many as 4,400 insurgents had signed up for Bring People Home. But now, through the scaled down numbers, only the 288 remain enrolled, including 161 who signed up in 2018, Piyawat said.
“The more than 4,000 others enrolled before were found non-relevant. … We want the real ones who have arrest warrants and other ‘misled persons’ to join the program. And we reset the program, we abandoned the old procedures and adopt new ones which are clearly different,” Piyawat said.
The thousands of others who were not considered hardcore rebels were removed from the program’s rolls and allowed to return to their villages in the predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South, where nearly 7,000 people have been killed in insurgency-related incidents and other violence since the separatist conflict reignited 14 years ago.
The number of enrollees was also revised down because program’s staff could not effectively monitor and visit thousands of enrollees twice a month, officials said. Last year, the military allocated 106 million baht (U.S. $3.33 million) for Bring People Home.
“The program must be sped up because it not only reduces violence, but it sends a psychological effect on the attempts to train new insurgents,” said Col. Pansit Supanchanaburi, the officer who oversees the program.
The program, which was started in the Deep South in 2013, allows enrollees to live in their home villages while attending activities such as “attitude adjustment” indoctrination sessions and vocational training aimed at helping them get jobs and reintegrate back into civilian life.
A handful of those who enroll are subject to possible prosecution over past activities, but the military provides ex-insurgents with legal assistance and lawyers, Piyawat said.
“There are many more prospects, in and outside Thailand, who want to enroll,” Piyawat added.
Meanwhile, at least 2,000 ex-members of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), two of the rebel groups in the Deep South, have expressed interest in joining Bring People Home, according to the Bangkok Post last week. It quoted a former PULO fighter who claimed he spoke for members of the group who were hiding out in Malaysia, Brunei, Scandinavia and the Middle East.
Piyawat said he had set up a “hotline” number for insurgents to call if they were thinking of surrendering through the program. Last February, the general made headlines when he flew by helicopter to personally take a southern militant into custody as the man surrendered to Thai authorities through Bring People Home.
‘The smiles of everyone’
Harong Maroh called the hotline in April 2017 saying he decided to move back to the Deep South after a decade on the run from Thai authorities and hiding out in neighboring Malaysia.
Harong got into trouble with the Thai authorities because his brother was involved in an anti-government demonstration in Tak Bai, Narathiwat province, where 85 protesters died in October 2004 after authorities packed them into and stacked their bodies on top of each other inside a truck.
Harong fled the Deep South in 2007.
“One day my wife learned that I got a subpoena, so she and our kids came to join me there [in Kelantan, Malaysia],” he told reporters at the Feb. 2 ceremony in Pattani, adding that a court case against him was dismissed after he signed up for Bring People Home.
At last week’s ceremony where enrollees symbolically handed over their weapons to Thai soldiers, Piwayat claimed that “we heartily embrace them, showing them sincerity, giving them justice and safety,” so the former insurgents can see “the smiles of everyone in their families.”
But, he also warned, if one of the enrollees returned to his old life of rebellion, it would be “hard to fix.”
“If so, we would bring them to justice,” Piyawat said.
Last year, soon after the general choppered into Yala province to take custody of alleged insurgent Ahama Duere, Thai security expert Don Pathan raised questions about whether Bring People Home was simply a public relations exercise or an effective counter-insurgency tool in winning “hearts and minds” in the Deep South.
“[T]he Thai government calls the project a success but offers no meaningful justification to support that claim. Every now and then, authorities put together a boot-stomping public ceremony where former combatants and authorities get together in a show of force and unity with hugs and handshakes in front of the media and villagers,” Pathan wrote in a column for BenarNews.
“But in remote villages, insurgents keep operating freely mainly because villagers continue to support them. They take turns making food for insurgents and sometimes providing them with shelter if their unit has been moved from another area for whatever reason,” he went to say.
Araya Poejar in Bangkok and Matahari Ismail in Narathiwat contributed to this report.