Piyawat not helping matters in the South

opinion March 21, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

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It appears there’s a rivalry in the brass that could scuttle an already tenuous scheme for bringing peace to the region

The minute he took command of the Fourth Army Area, everyone involved in the decades-long conflict in the South knew Lt General Piyawat Nakwanich was going to take a lot of people for a ride. He seemed pretentious in the way he presented himself then and continues to do so, and tends to make outrageous claims and promises. But Thai society – and especially the policymakers in Bangkok – admire a tough-talking man like Piyawat, especially when there’s an inherent element of risk to it.

Part of the reason Piyawat can get away with his exaggeration is that few Thais care about the aggrieved Malay Muslims in the region in his charge. To some extent, they support his suppression of these people, who they feel do not embrace the Thai identity and thus don’t deserve to be treated with respect. 

Piyawat’s admirers will tell you he shunned promotion to four-star general so that he could remain in the southern border region and continue his vaunted counter-insurgency programmes – the “de-radicalisation” and “Bring People Home”. The latter is a half-baked amnesty scheme in which former insurgents must publicly declare they were wrong to have taken up arms against the state. Pride must be swallowed and dignity sacrificed in exchange for leniency in punishment. Piyawat chooses to ignore other possible factors behind the decision to denounce separatism. 

Other commanders of the Fourth Army have set out to bolster their reputations at the expense of southern citizens, but Piyawat’s pursuit of the limelight has undermined an initiative that’s far more important than any of his public-relations gimmicks. For some weeks now, he’s been at loggerheads with General Aksara Kherdphol, the government’s chief negotiator in talks with MARA Patani, an umbrella organisation for several long-established separatist movements. Piayawat appears to be irritated by the so-called “progress” that Aksara has been making on his turf.

Aksara is about to formally announce implementation of the “Safety Zone” pilot project that will impose a ceasefire on one district in the South. A Safe House will be designated where representatives of the government and MARA Patani will hear and hopefully resolve citizens’ grievances.

Piyawat has been dismissive of the Safety Zone, saying that, while he didn’t wish to boast, he’s already succeeded in creating 14 such zones. And he said he would arrest anyone – anywhere in the South, including in the Safety Zone – if there were an outstanding warrant for that person. The statement came across as a jab at Aksara’s Dialogue Panel, which is seeing about granting temporary immunity to two MARA Patani representatives so they can re-enter Thailand from Malaysia to observe the ceasefire and Safety Zone.  

The Safety Zone represents a leap of faith on the government’s part. Neither Malaysia, which is facilitating negotiations, nor MARA Patani controls the insurgents waging war. The Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), which does control active insurgents, has said it would respect the Safety Zone, but others in the movement warn the BRN could break that promise if Piyawat’s heavy-handed tactics continue in the South. Sharing the BRN’s distrust of Piyawat are local rights activists and members of civil society organisations, who say he denies them freedom of expression.

Piyawat might not care about winning hearts and minds, but he should give Aksara’s initiative the leeway to succeed or fail. His cutting remarks help no one. If anything, they make a laughing stock of the armed forces.