Lt-General Pornsak Poonsawas has an opportunity to steer deep South towards peace – but he must first change Army policy
The Thai Army has a new chief in the South and it seems he’s bent on charting a different course from his predecessor, the just-retired Lt-General Piyawat Nakwanich.
Lt-General Pornsak Poonsawas began his new role by paying a visit to the Shaykhul Islam of Thailand, the Chularatchamontri Aziz Pitakkumphol, to introduce himself two days before officially assuming his post as commander of the trouble-plagued Fourth Army Region.
The visit was a largely symbolic gesture of goodwill towards the senior-most Islamic figure in the country. Pornsak discussed his determination to tackle illicit drug use in the region, one of the few problems the Thai state and local residents agree upon.
Like those before him, Pornsak’s core task is to quell separatist violence in the majority Malay-Muslim provinces in Thailand’s far South. In theory, counter-insurgency strategy calls for a combination of military and non-military means to end the violence and identify its root cause.
But Piyawat hasn’t left Pornsak much to work with. If anything, Piyawat’s tough-talking, shoot-from-the-hip style drove a bigger wedge between the Thai state and local Malay Muslims.
Just weeks before his mandatory retirement, Piyawat dispatched about 1,000 soldiers and police to lockdown two tambons in Pattani’s Nong Chik district in the wake of a September 11 gunfight that left two soldiers dead and four injured.
Permitted under the emergency and martial laws, his “additional measure” amounted to collective punishment of the local residents who he suggested had turned a blind eye to insurgent activities in the area.
The two tambons were proclaimed a “Controlled Area” and locals were ordered to report to the Army with registration documents for their boats and vehicles as well as the permits for their weapons.
Most were too scared to leave their homes, not even to attend prayers at the village mosque, for fear of being arrested arbitrarily.
The battle is for hearts and minds
Counter-insurgency strategy takes for granted that local residents are not on the side of the state, but of the non-state actor. This, in the case of Thailand’s far South, is the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the longstanding separatist movement that controls virtually all of the insurgent combatants.
However, Thai military leaders have yet to come to terms with the fact that local Malay Muslims support the insurgents.
So instead of strategising to win hearts and minds, the military prefers strong-arm tactics that penalise local residents for siding with the insurgents.
According to one military intelligence officer, it goes without saying that both the emergency law and martial law permit the arrest of people who harbour armed insurgents. But Piyawat chose to proclaim this point loudly, reminding local residents exactly who has the power in this historically contested region.
State representatives reminding the Patani Malays that they are a defeated people is nothing new.
Piyawat’s callous treatment of locals in Nong Chik gave local political activists, namely the Federation of Patani Students and Youth (PerMAS), an opportunity to hit back at the government.
PerMAS, a student network advocating for the right to self-determination in this region, condemned Piyawat’s security measures on humanitarian grounds and called for an end to the use of the emergency law and martial law.
Thailand’s emergency law permits the detention of suspects for up to 30 days without formal charges or legal representation. It also grants blanket amnesty to officials working in the region, while the burden of proof falls on the victim who must show that the official acted with malice. Former prime minister Anand Panyarachun called these extraordinary measures “a licence to kill”.
In retaliation against PerMAS and the Civil Society Assembly for Peace (Kor Por Sor), Piyawat arranged a protest in front of the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani to denounce the university for producing “problematic students”.
Protesters also filed a police complaint accusing PerMAS activists of obstructing justice when they dispatched scores of people to Nong Chik district to meet with the local residents.
PerMAS members noted that the protesters had brought along a token presence of Muslims to give their rally a multicultural veneer.
Military personnel don’t take kindly to political activists, who they see as an extension of the BRN. Army officers say the right to self-determination demanded by PerMAS amounts to a call for independence, rather than just more autonomy, for the Malays in Thailand’s far South. Pornsak has an opportunity to change this zero-sum mentality. The Army’s lack of a counter-insurgency strategy worthy of the name is preventing any progress towards peace in the far South.
Don Pathan is a security and development consultant based in Thailand and a member of the Patani Forum (www.pataniforum.com), a civil society organisation dedicated to critical discussion about the
insurgency in Thailand’s far South.