Published on January 18, 2008
Last year, an exasperated former Army chief, Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin, lamented the military's low morale and poor performance as reflected in the worsening situation in the deep South. It was brave of Sonthi to own up to the Army's mistakes and shortcomings. But whether such criticism has led to any effort among the rank and file to right the wrongs, to improve the Army's battle-readiness, remains very much in doubt.
Four years after the beginning of the insurgency by Islamic militants/Malay separatists in the deep South, it is impossible to ignore the failure of the Army to achieve its objectives: to suppress the insurgency, protect the civilian population and restore peace or at least a semblance of law and order in the strife-torn region.
The insurgents are still able to carry out their campaign to terrorise local people through random murders, planting bombs at busy public places, ambushing military convoys, and inflicting heavy casualties on soldiers who have received inadequate training in counter-insurgency tactics.
Even after four years of the struggle against the insurgents, the Army still has not set up rapid deployment forces that can be dispatched to provide reinforcements, rescue wounded soldiers and pursue insurgents.
Soldiers under attack are left to their own devices and the wounded are almost always not rescued in time. Often they are finished off execution-style and they are mutilated or decapitated. Under such circumstances, it is understandable that the tens of thousands of troops in the deep South suffer from low morale.
Employing hit-and-run tactics, insurgents can always hide among the civilian population, plotting more attacks. At the same time, the Army not only lacks good intelligence but also has serious difficulty in keeping its operational plans secret, thus endangering the lives of its own troops. The recent arrest of three Army intelligence officers and seven policemen suspected of spying for the insurgents is unsettling.
The effort by the Army to win the hearts and minds of the people also is not working. Obviously, an Army that is incapable of protecting its own men does not inspire confidence among ordinary people under fire. Locals naturally refuse to cooperate with the authorities for fear of reprisal by ruthless militants.
It is only fair to ask what has the Army learned, if anything, in the past four years? How has it adjusted its tactics and strategies? Porous land and sea borders with Malaysia continue to be largely unguarded - why? Who among the military's top brass will provide the leadership to reform the Army, Navy and Air Force?
How long can this series of military blunders go on before the armed forces loses the will to fight altogether?
It may be true that a lasting peace in the deep South can be achieved through political settlement, through peace talks at the negotiation table. But it cannot be emphasised enough that an effective military - with the will, knowledge and ability to fight insurgents - must go hand in hand with any political initiative.
As a democratic country, Thailand must not be forced to negotiate with hate-filled insurgents, certainly not under fire, and not when innocent civilians continue to be terrorised and victimised. The military has much to learn from Thailand's previous successes in suppressing communist insurgents in the mid-1980s and the previous generation of Malay separatists in the early 1990s. And - if peace is to be restored in the troubled region - it must adopt and adapt much more quickly.