HOSTAGE TAKING: Army's image takes beating
Published on May 23, 2006 - Sonthi admits teachers should have been rescued in minutes, calls for investigation
The Army's failure to rescue two teachers nearly beaten to death last week reflects badly on the military in the restive region and highlights its lack of a contingency plan for situations that call for a quick response, a mid-ranking officer sent to analyse the incident said yesterday.
Police yesterday arrested four suspects including a 44-year-old woman who allegedly encouraged locals to take the teachers hostage on Friday, and a male teenager who allegedly beat the teachers. One of the two taken hostage, Juling Pangamoon, remains in a coma.
Army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin said yesterday the military regretted the situation and offered apologies to the families of the teachers. Deployment to rescue the pair should have been made in 10 minutes rather than two hours, he said, noting he had instructed Fourth Army chiefs to conduct an investigation into the failure.
One investigating officer said the morale of troops on the frontline had taken a nose-dive, because of the indecisiveness of senior officers, who would not give their troops orders - either to rescue the teachers or take some other form of action.
The officer said 16 rangers had been on foot patrol when they encountered a gathering of about 200 people in front of the school in Kuching Reupah village. They immediately radioed the Fourth Army's Task Force 34 in Rangae district, just 30 minutes away.
The Rangers asked for reinforcements and the go-ahead to move, but Task Force 34 (TF34) commanders opted to wait for further instruction from Maj-General Samret Srirai, the deputy commander of the Fourth Army Area, whose career has been spent largely in Special Operations.
Headquarters was told the teachers were being held hostage.
The officer said it remained unclear whether TF34 had been able to contact Samret or any other commanding officer, but its soldiers were instructed to opt for a route that took them two hours to get to the school.
Deputy Prime Minister Chidchai Vanasathidya said authorities took time to organise reinforcements as an initial report indicated there were as many as 800 people at the hostage site, when in fact only 50 people were there.
Routes to the scene were also blocked with logs and metal spikes that had been scattered across the roads, he said.
But the investigating officer questioned his remarks, saying that even with clearing the roadways, shorter routes would have taken no more than 30 minutes.
By the time TF34 reinforcements arrived at the school the two teachers were well on their way to the hospital, both in critical condition.
The officer said the sluggish response reflected not only communication problems in the chain of command, but also problems with how orders were carried out.
He said investigations showed a lack of decisiveness on the part of the military leadership, namely the commander of the Fourth Army Area, Maj-General Ongkorn Thongprasom, who has offered to be stand down as punishment for the failure.
"This is not the first time. There have been lots of gunfights in the past, but the reinforcement always come too late," said the mid-ranking officer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The problem with the military's handling of the South is that there is no contingency plan to support troops on the frontline," he said.
Requests or reports from frontline troops, regardless of their rank, should given serious consideration, rather than requiring the top brass to make final decisions.
"This kind of leadership has taken its toll on the morale of men. We need to improve the speed and response times dramatically if we wish to meet these kinds of challenges," the officer said.
Three Blackhawk helicopters and another from the police force were sitting at TF34 headquarters in Rangae district at the time of the incident, but on that day their only task was to ferry VIPs to visit the two teachers.