‘South an elusive 'spider's
web' for generals
Published on Sep 6, 2006
- For a man who has been assigned one of the most
tasks in modern Thai history, Lt-General Ongkorn Thongprasom
hard not to sound like a battle-hardened commander.
Ongkorn, who has made his career in the Army's Special Forces,
clear that military means alone would not bring peace to the
Malay-speaking deep South, which has been shaped by a history
rebellion against the Thai state and its refusal to let go
All of Bangkok's initiatives and policies have failed to
bring about a
permanent peace or answer the grievances that have bred dissent
region. Because nothing has so far worked, men like Ongkorn
to be sent here to quell armed insurgencies.
This latest round, which surfaced in late 2001 but was not
acknowledged until scores of militants carried out a major
raid on an
Army battalion in
January 2004, has so far claimed more than 1,700 lives, according
the latest statistics compiled by Srisompob Jitpiromsri, an
professor at Prince of Songkhla University, Pattani campus.
Millions of baht have been spent on enhancing security in
over the past two-and-a-half years, in addition to more than
armed troops being stationed there. Despite this, the state
is still largely perceived to be a foreign conqueror with
who rarely speak the local language or take the time to understand
Ethnic Malays say they don't feel they have a shared destiny
rest of the country, and that they continue to regard officials
agents of a Buddhist state intent on pushing through a set
aimed at making them Thai at the expense of their own identity.
In a recent interview with senior journalists from Nation
Group, Ongkorn said that initial encounters between the two
the Thai state and the Malay-speaking region - started off
wrong foot, and that the current generation has been left
to pick up
the pieces. Permanent peace can only be achieved through a
collective effort from all sides and a permanent reconciliation
take at least two more generations to achieve, he said.
One of the short-term goals, said Ongkorn, is to look for
distinguish insurgents from common criminals, and then to
look for a
way to channel insurgents back into Thai society.
"Many of these insurgents are good kids. They are not
nature," said Pol Lt-General Adul Sangsingkeo, commissioner
Ninth Police Region, which oversees the country's seven southernmost
Adul said officials from the military, law enforcement and
community have been meeting regularly to discuss how to differentiate
insurgents from common criminals.
Ongkorn confirmed that authorities are in the process of
detention centre to house suspected insurgents with the aim
returning the "re-educated" ones back into society
But like most controversial initiatives, the devil is always
details. Among those who back the idea of turning insurgents
peace-loving citizens, said Adul, the debate revolves around
should have the power to determine who is a common criminal
and who is
an insurgent. The legal community said such a judgement should
to them, while security officials think they should be the
decide. But even if the state were to succeed in turning insurgents
into productive citizens, the heart of the problem still has
addressed: the source of inspiration for Malay separatism.
While the two generals agreed the conflict is a battle of
Malay separatists vs the Thai state - neither has gone into
to what needs to be done in order to address the roots of
At most, both generals would agree that issues such as history,
education, poverty, social mobility and inequality should
collectively with the help of Islamic leaders, if the state
succeed in winning the hearts and minds of those in the region.
Ongkorn and Adul did not point fingers at any particular
incident, but stated that decades of neglect, along with the
to detect that a new generation of insurgents was in the making
the previous decade, has led to the current predicament.
"In the past the militants were hiding out in remote
hills but now
they are operating from within the villages," Ongkorn
Long-term solutions aside, both generals said they have a
immediate concern, pointing to the roadside bombings that
by brief gunfights as well as the drive-by shootings that
almost on a daily basis.
"Insurgents carrying out an attack go through several
They have people who function as their eyes and ears, informing
down the line about the movement of the authorities,"
"Another team would be responsible for placing weapons
at a designated
location, and then a different group would enter the picture
carryout a roadside attack," he added. Adul said the
immediate aim is
to contain the violence from intensifying beyond its current
He said insurgents' attacks appear to be intensifying with
coordinated hits and larger explosions in roadside bombings.
fundamentally the overall tactics haven't changed. Even so,
officials appear to be fighting an uphill battle. Last month,
authorities found about 20 holes dug in one stretch of road
believed were supposed to be bomb slots. "It's like a
spider's web out
there, so many twists and turns," Ongkorn said.
Officially, the region of Thailand's three southernmost provinces
not a war zone. "But we feel that we could be hit at