A Thai soldier during the 2010 protests in Bangkok. (Photo by Flickr user NullO.)
Since seizing power in a coup in May, the former General turned PM, Prayuth Chan-Ocha, has been on a mission to stabilise the country and 'return happiness to the people' (the title of a song he penned earlier this year).
Yet while many of his moves have prompted wry smiles from Thailand watchers, Prayuth's latest initiative shows the junta's dangerous military mindset.
On Monday, the Army announced it is supplying a large amount of arms to the Ministry of Interior for distribution to 'civil volunteers' in the country's restive south. These arms are not, as Thai PBS put it, 'service pistols'. Rather, they are HK33 semi-automatic assault rifles (capable of full auto), 2700 of them.
The spokesperson for the Internal Operations Security Command noted that volunteers 'need weapons for self-defence'. He added that many of the weapons had also gone to local Muslim villagers who have been targeted for moderate and pro-peace views.
After much Government talk of negotiating a peace deal in the country's south this year, the move comes as a volte-face and one that will likely escalate vigilantism and violence in what is Southeast Asia's most deadly ongoing conflict. Since 2004, 6100 have been killed and 10,000 injured as communal violence has torn apart Thailand's southern communities.
While the intent of much of the insurgency has been unwavering, their capability (while often gruesome) has remained limited. Providing untrained civil volunteers with such a large number of assault rifles therefore begs a few questions. Will they fall into the wrong hands? Are civil volunteers suitably trained to use them professionally? Will more arms simply fuel greater vigilantism, which some Buddhist monks have already called for?
In a recent Indo-Pacific Review paper, Zach Abuza, a researcher on the conflict, noted that most arms used by insurgents are seized from those killed in the insurgency. The influx of new assault weapons into the hands of those with little to no training may well be a boon for insurgents themselves.
The proliferation of arms to untrained civilians is quite simply dangerous policy. It is an abdication of responsibility by the army and undermines the job of security forces, who should be leading all such operations. This is a bad solution based on bad logic that will ultimately have deadly results.