The Ministry of Defence is preparing to set up the 7th Infantry Division to oversee the upper north of Thailand with a proposed budget of 9 billion baht. The army denies criticism that the move is to deal with red shirts, but is instead to balance Burma’s military force which is being strengthened.
Currently, the 4th Infantry Division alone has to take care of a large area from Nakhon Sawan up to Chiang Rai, so the army has planned to set up a new division to shorten the line of command, Defence Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwan said on 25 Jan.
Ministry of Defence spokesperson Col Thanathip Sawangsang said that the army had planned this last year, as the 3rd Army Area currently has only one division, the 4th Infantry Division.
He insisted that this was necessary because the army does not have enough personnel to take care of border areas and to deal with ‘new threats including, in particular, drugs and migrant workers’. The plan will be submitted to the cabinet for approval.
The Ministry will propose for the cabinet’s approval a budget of about 8-9 billion baht over three years, 2011-2013. The personnel for the new division will be transferred from the 3rd Army Area’s 5 infantry regiments which had previously been dissolved.
According to Kom Chad Luek newspaper on 23 July 2010, the plan was proposed by then Army Chief Gen Anupong Paojinda, and nearly 8,000 troops would be transferred from other military units in the North and the North East.
In October 2010, during a meeting with the House committee on Military Affairs led by a Phue Thai MP, Col Thongchai Sarasu from the army’s Directorate of Operations dismissed speculation that the army’s agenda was to persecute red shirts in the North.
He told the committee that the setting up of the new division had nothing to do with the red shirts, but was about the threats from Myanmar.
Referring to military intelligence, he cited several moves by the neighbouring country to strengthen its military power, including developing a nuclear programme with help from Russia and North Korea, digging over 800 secret tunnels, planning to buy submarines from China and India, to buy about 300 T55 and T72 tanks from India and Russia respectively, to build under licence 1,200 rubber-wheeled Ukrainian BTR armoured vehicles from Ukraine, and to buy Scud missiles, and 20 Mig29 fighter jets.
It is speculated that over the past four years, Myanmar has spent over 20% of its GDP on its military budget, much more than Thailand, increasing from about 3.5%, the colonel said.
So, he said, that puts Thailand’s current military force in the North at a disadvantage. Besides, part of its personnel has had to be deployed in the Southern border areas.
He said that during a briefing on military development in neighbouring countries on 22 March 2010 Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had approved in principle the setting up of the 7th Infantry Division.
He said that setting up the division was a ten-year plan, and the full complement would be 16,000 troops.
The new division will be responsible for the upper north provinces including Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Lampang, Phayao and Mae Hong Son, with its headquarters planned for Mae Rim, Chiang Mai.