Soldiers in saffron and other bad ideas

opinion January 24, 2019 01:00

By The Nation

Attempting to quell fear amid the southern mayhem, the Army chief seems unprepared to quell the violence itself



We have to wonder what was going through the mind of Army chief General Apirat Kongsompong when, during a visit to the Narathiwat temple where two monks were killed last week, he suggested that soldiers should be ordained to protect the grounds.

Soldiers can of course become monks, but the calling to the priesthood should surely be of a higher order and involve considerable forethought and then the proper, sombre rituals of induction. What General Apirat seems to be suggesting is donning the holy robes as part of a half-baked, ill-defined security tactic born of a sense of military duty. It would do more harm than good, especially to Buddhism, which the idea demeans insensitively.

And how could the plan work unless the recruits-turned-monks were armed, in violation of their sacred vows?

Spouting words to reporters before giving the brain a chance to process the repercussions those words might have is a common shortcoming among Thailand’s top military brass. Apirat was no doubt seeking to reassure the public and especially the monks of Wat Rattananuparb in Sungai Padi district that they had nothing more to fear. The notion of putting soldiers in saffron robes perhaps fell from his cuff as one way of affording them protection.

He told residents, both Buddhist and Muslim, that the attack at the temple was an isolated incident aimed at driving a wedge between the two peoples of faith. His attempt to calm tensions before another attack occurs sounded hollow. He should instead have been more forthcoming with the citizens about why the southern violence is spiking again. He should have acknowledged there might be a link between the two monks’ murders and the recent slayings of Muslim religious leaders that went largely unnoticed in the Thai news media and unmentioned by the nation’s leaders in Bangkok.

The government had little to say about suspected insurgents killing a Buddhist retired schoolteacher so they could steal his car and turn it into a mobile bomb. It would rather the public not know that militants occupied a community hospital in Narathiwat’s Ruesoh district specifically because there is an Army facility right next door. In that action, the insurgents violated international norms, but both sides have been doing that lately, as well as ignoring an unspoken rule against harming children and holy men.

When paramilitary rangers shot dead three young boys in Narathiwat’s Bacho district in February 2014, the retaliation was so terrible that the rangers admitted to the killings, presumably in a bid to halt the violence – only to retract their admission when the matter went to court. 

This wearying conflict is painful enough without the too-frequent bursts of inhumane brutality, when all pretence of civility is abandoned. To retract the claws again, our leaders, policymakers and military commanders will have to be truthful to the public about their intentions and fundamentally revise their policies and strategy.

Soldiers have been ordained as monks before in the South, to no lasting effect. Another whimsical suggestion once saw monks from all over the country assigned to different temples in the border provinces. As soon as the photo-ops ended days later, the migrant monks were left on their own with no one offering protection.

We need ideas for the far South that stem from a deeper understanding of the political-cultural situation there. We need more honesty, empathy and integrity.