The new military commander overseeing Thailand’s predominantly Muslim southernmost provinces has vowed to launch a crackdown on drugs, saying a recent survey found that most people in the region see addiction as their most-pressing issue, not the insurgency.
Lt. Gen. Pornsak Poonsawas, the Fourth Army Region commander, made the statement Sunday after making a courtesy call to Aziz Phitakkumpon, the country’s top Muslim spiritual leader.
“The poll survey showed a significant result that local people have been struggling most with drug use, not insurgency,” Pornsak told reporters, without elaborating. “I have prepared for proactive measures to significantly clean up drug issues.”
Pornsak formally took control of the Fourth Army Region on Monday, replacing Lt Gen. Piyawat Nakwanich, who relinquished command two days ago during a ceremony at the Vajiravudh military camp in the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat.
"The villagers believe that drug issues have gone too far and drugs are still being sold everywhere on the streets because government officials are involved,” Pornsak said, without providing evidence to support his allegations.
He warned that military men found guilty of selling illicit drugs would be punished and could even face criminal charges.
Drug have had a deep impact on communities and relationships in the south, according to a BBC Thai report, which quoted the military as saying that an estimated one in five teens are addicted to drugs in the Muslim-majority provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.
“The drug issues are serious problems and have brought concern to people in the region,” Pornsak said.
Aziz Phitakkumpon pledged to back Pornsak.
“The organization of the Sheikul Islam is ready to support the work of the Fourth Army Region commander in resolving drug issues,” he said.
More than 4 percent of Thailand’s 69 million people are Muslim, almost 2 million of whom live in the Deep South region next to the Malaysian border.
Since a long-running separatist insurgency by Malay-speaking, Muslim rebels re-ignited in 2004, almost 7,000 people have been killed in associated violence. According to local think-tank Deep South Watch, Buddhists, who are a minority in the region, comprise about half of the death toll.
Pornsak said the military would coordinate with the Office of the Narcotics Control Board and other government agencies to launch raids on 7,000 places where illegal drug use is proliferating.
Such operations, he said, would strictly respect the human rights of suspects and would expect support from village officials and civil society groups.
“The military is reserved as a support force,” he said, adding that intelligence gathering would be improved as he vowed a revamp of the military leadership in the region.
"Military must not be lazy, must focus on foot patrol …and also help protect villagers in the area,” he said. “If the soldiers stay close by, there won’t be insurgents daring to live [in the region].”