Lt. Gen. Pornsak Poonsawas, the newly appointed commander of the Fourth Army Region, paid a courtesy visit to the Sheikhul Islam to formally introduce himself before taking up the post as he seeks to quell insurgencies in the Malay provinces in Thailand’s Deep South.
While separatist conflict is largely confined to the Muslim-majority Deep South, Pornsak’s visit to the senior-most Islamic figure of the country was largely symbolic and nothing less than a gesture of goodwill.
His predecessor, Lt. Gen. Piyawat Nakwanich, did not leave Pornsak much to work with. In fact, Pornsak will have to pick up the pieces and clean up the mess that Piyawat left behind.
Many observers, including men under his command, saw Piyawat’s tough-talking, shoot-from-the-hip style as counter-productive for Thailand's counter-insurgency strategy in this historically contested region where about 7,000 people, mostly Muslims, have been killed since January 2004.
Piyawat did not seem to care that his approach drove a bigger wedge between the Thai state and the local Malay Muslims, especially the young political activists and human rights advocates who consistently called him out over controversial security measures and exaggeration.
In the days leading up to his mandatory retirement, Piyawat unleashed about 1,000 combined forces of police and soldiers to carry out a dragnet operation on two tambons (village clusters) in Nong Chik district of Pattani, after a patrolling unit was ambushed on Sept. 11. Two soldiers were killed and four wounded as morale sank to a new low among the soldiers.
Piyawat placed these villages under “Controlled Area” which permits the soldiers and police to search homes and detain anyone they see fit. It went on for days, nearly a week.
He also toyed with the idea of bringing charges against family members of suspected insurgents if troops found they had been harboring these insurgents.
While the country’s controversial Emergency Law gave him the power to take up additional measures, the move against the two tambons in Nong Chik district was a major disaster, politically speaking, one that will burden his replacement, namely Pornsak.
The Federation of Patani Students and Youth (PerMAS) hit back by dispatching scores of young activists to the Nong Chik district as part of an outreach exercise to local residents, many of whom said they were too afraid to leave their homes, even to attend prayers at the village mosque, for fear of being arbitrarily arrested.
PerMAS, a student political network advocating for the right to self-determination in this restive region, issued a statement condemning Piyawat's security measures on humanitarian grounds, and called for an end to use of the Emergency Law.
Thailand’s Emergency Law permits detention up to 30 days without formal charges or legal representation. It also grants blanket amnesty to officials working in the region as the burden of proof falls on the victim who will have to show the official acted with malice.
Piyawat’s supporters showed up with signs displaying vulgar statements against the youth activists and attacking the local Prince of Songkhla University for producing problematic students.
The signs asked why PerMAS were defending “criminals.” The supporters also filed a complaint with the local police accusing these activists of obstructing justice.
PerMAS members said they were not losing sleep over a handful of Buddhist nationalists with a twisted agenda.
To make their 90-minute protest seem multicultural, the organizers brought along a handful of Muslims protesters, PerMAS members joked.
The university responded with an open letter rebutting the ultra-nationalist group whose leaders were behind a recent campaign to ban Islamic headscarf in public schools.
Similarly, a group of Buddhist nationalists is trying to get the regional hospital in Yala to set up a separate Buddhist kitchen in additional to the existing Halal. They cited equality and justice and expressed the fear that Muslims are chipping away at their culture and identity space.
Soldiers say that Pornsak’s term will be one of reconciliation, or at least a step toward that direction, between the state and the Malays.
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security and development consultant for international organizations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.