Force alone won't win battle with insurgents
Published on July 05, 2006 - Last month, when nearly 50 bombs went off across the three southernmost provinces almost simultaneously, the immediate reaction from top political figures was to save their own hides.
Interior Minister ACM Kongsak Wantana said it was impossible that the bombs were assembled in Thailand because the officials in his ministry had been very strict overseeing explosive substances and therefore these bombs had to have come from Malaysia.
Deputy Prime Minister Chidchai Vanasatidya said the attack coincided with the anniversary of some meeting or other among the insurgents a decade ago, although none of the separatist groups seems to know the significance of the date.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, on the other hand, put the blame on Army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, saying: "I have repeatedly told him to respond quicker and make the needed adjustments."
While it was not the first time that the public heard excuses coming from its political leaders, this time around it rubbed the army the wrong way.
Sources in the army said Sonthi has asked to be given the mandate he would need in order to assume the responsibility that Thaksin has suggested is his. The army chief needed reassurance from political leaders that he will have full control over security matters in the region. Moreover, the age-old rivalries between military and civilian agencies must cease or at least some efforts must be made to repair the relationship.
Officials complained that intelligence reports have often been misused, often to justify decisions already made.
Analysts said it is difficult to abide by the existing chain of command for security agencies in the region because district and provincial officials continue to take their orders from the Interior Ministry on matters and operations that are normally considered the domain of the military. The current operational structure does not give the army chief the needed power to enforce strategic and tactical operations in one of the country's most distinctive regions.
On the ground, there are as many as 30,000 troops together with 10,000 police officers and an additional 1,000 officers dealing with psychological warfare. They fall under the command of several agencies, including the Fourth Army Region, the Navy, the Rangers, Royal Thai Police (the national police agency) and the Border Patrol police.
To give the impression that the army and police are united in their work, it has been necessary that the Fourth Army Region Commander Ongkorn Thongprasom and Ninth Police Region Commander Adul Saengsingkeow go from place to place as a pair, even when speaking to the press.
The Interior Ministry, on the other hand, has its own set of armed units. Several thousand so-called defence volunteers are at the disposal of the provincial governor and district chiefs.
Neither these volunteers nor their budget are included in this already complex security structure. This explains why Narathiwat governor Pracha Therat tends to have his own version on just about everything, in spite of the fact that his information may be radically different from that of the army or the police.
Prime Minister Thaksin's "act new think new" approach led him to dissolve the multi-agency, civilian-led Southern Border Province Administrative Centre in early 2002. It proved to be a disastrous move as the network of informants that the centre's security wing had established quickly crumbled, with their informants killed one by one. To date, Thailand has yet to come up with a replacement for the centre or at least not one capable of winning the trust of the local community. And the more agencies Thaksin creates, the more confusing their already bewildering ways of working becomes.
About a year ago, a council was set up with Chidchai as its head. Sonthi was made the chairman of the Implementation, Policy and Strategy Committee, which would operate under the council. It was another fancy name given to another agency that did more to confuse officials than to help them see their role in the scheme of things.
Like commanders before them, neither Ongkorn nor Sonthi has the mandate to initiate a change in the policing of the restive region. The attitude continues to be that "Bangkok knows best".
But even if Sonthi could get Thaksin to re-engineer the entire security apparatus, the army chief will be facing stiff resistance from hard-liners in the Thai government and armed forces. The army chief has been lending a sympathetic ear to proposals from the now defunct peace dedicated National Reconciliation Commission (NRC), which is quickly losing steam since Thaksin shot down one of its key recommendations - that Malay be used as a "working language" in the region.
On the tactical level, Sonthi is interested in setting up a rapid deployment force (RDF) in the region. Authorities came under strong criticism for being slow to act, especially in the high-profile case in Kuching Reupah, where it took them two hours to reach the scene where two female teachers were nearly beaten to death by suspected insurgents. There is also talk of setting up a rescue operation unit that comes with a designated negotiator to deal with hostage crises.
Moreover, to reduce response times between the command centre and units on the ground, an army officer with the rank of captain will have the power to order a ground unit to carry out search and rescue operations.
Although the NRC is not popular with hard-liners in the government, according to a recent NRC poll, officials at the Defence Ministry were the most receptive to the commission's proposals. The interior and the education ministries had many more objections.
While teachers were calling for guns to arm themselves and interior officials were asking for firmer security measures, the Defence Ministry appeared to be interested in the idea of an "unarmed army" as a psychological tactic to deal with villages that are more vulnerable to insurgents' influences.
But even if Sonthi could come up with a sound security framework to adequately address the problem in the South, a bigger problem awaits him. He will be dealing with a band of faceless enemies who continue to chip away whatever trust the local population has left in the authorities. The end game, it seems, is nowhere in sight.