The Thai army aims to replace troops with paramilitary forces in the insurgency-plagued south, in the hope of softening its image and winning over locals in its fight against Malay-Muslim separatists there.
The pullback of non-local troops - who are accused of being ignorant of local customs and culture - was a demand raised by insurgent group Barisan Revolusi Nasional last year, after the launch of Malaysia-facilitated peace talks with the previous Thai government.
Negotiations were suspended late last year and remain in limbo under the military government that came to power in the May 22 coup.
The new commander of the army section overseeing the restive southern border provinces, Lieutenant-General Prakarn Chonlayut, told reporters last Saturday that the withdrawal of non-local troops would be accompanied by an increase in the size of the Volunteer Defence Corps - a paramilitary force under the charge of the Ministry of Interior that has been tasked largely with guarding installations or officials.
Village militias supported by the state would take greater control over the security of their own neighbourhoods, as "locals are the ones who know the area best", said Lt-Gen Prakarn.
"The military is hard power," he said. "We will aim to downsize the military stationed in the south."
He did not say when the changes would take place - only that the withdrawal would be made when the security environment in each district was conducive.
He made the comments on the same day that a mother and daughter were killed in a drive-by shooting in Yala province - the latest of what appear to be tit-for-tat killings of Buddhists and Muslims.
In the past decade, about 6,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which has battered the Malay-Muslim-dominated border provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, as well as a section of Songkhla.
Early this month, Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said the government would "try to bring peace within a year".
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is expected to make an introductory visit to Malaysia next month, during which the southern insurgency will be among the topics discussed.
Thais in the south - who had been living under emergency law even before martial law was declared nationwide on May 20 - resent the heavy presence of troops, paramilitary forces and local-level militias. Although this pullback plan appears to acknowledge local concerns, human rights activists are still uneasy.
Giving a greater role to paramilitary forces - who get less training and pay than professional soldiers do, and who have been accused of extrajudicial killings of insurgent suspects - raises its own set of concerns.
"People prefer professional soldiers," said Ms Angkhana Neelapaijit, who started the Justice for Peace Foundation, a human rights advocacy group working to resolve southern issues.
Most of the paramilitary forces and local militia volunteers, she said, are "trained only in how to shoot, not how to negotiate - which is what you need in a conflict situation".
This article was first published on Nov 17, 2014.
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