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     Volume 6 Issue 17 | May 4, 2007 |

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A Bitter Pill to Swallow

Police officers march during their passing-out parade ceremony in Thailand's restive southern Yala province. AFPPHOTO / Muhammad SABRI

There is no better proof of the military's failure than the fact that Islamic militants/Malay separatists have successfully turned what started out as sporadic terrorist acts and low-intensity conflict with security forces into a full-scale insurgency in the deep South. Three years on and more than 2,000 dead, the insurgents have managed to gain the upper hand, throwing the Thai military into disarray and leaving residents in the predominantly-Muslim southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat cowering in fear.

One would think the armed forces would have learned some valuable lessons and adapted their counter-insurgency tactics to suppress the rebellion and restore peace in the troubled region. One would expect that after the Sept 19 coup by the military, and after the National Legislative Assembly gave the green light to the Defence Ministry's proposed 2007 budget of Bt115 billion (US$3.5 billion) an almost 50-per-cent jump over that of the previous fiscal year that the armed forces would begin to shape up. But no such thing has happened.

The injection of massive funds into the Army, Navy and Air Force has not resulted in an improvement commensurate with the additional resources. Worse still, the military has slipped further in its ability to engage the southern insurgents, who continue to inflict huge casualties on security personnel through roadside bombs and ambushes. This explains why the armed forces' effort to win the hearts and minds of people in the deep South is not working as planned. A military that is incapable of protecting its own soldiers does not inspire confidence in local people, who then refuse to cooperate in any way with the authorities for fear of reprisal from insurgents. Without cooperation from locals, the armed forces can gain no intelligence and the tens of thousands of soldiers deployed to the area become sitting ducks.

The problem with the armed forces is that they have been and continue to be weighed down by debilitating structural problems, lack of professionalism and corruption. But no one discusses these festering problems, even though it is no longer possible for anyone to ignore the utter failure of the armed forces to achieve the objectives they set out. It is disturbing that the Thai public continues to make allowances for a military that is not doing its job.

In order to make its own failings seem less obvious, the military set up and armed ranger units made up of volunteers who are given only a few months of training before being deployed to areas heavily infiltrated by insurgents to fight on behalf of standing military units. Military commanders are reluctant to dispatch standing military units into battle zones, either because their battle-readiness is very much in doubt or because they want to minimise additions to the “official” casualty list. Lowly-paid rangers are not listed as personnel of the armed forces and they are considered dispensable in the sense that the government is not required to include them in the armed forces' official casualty list or to offer substantial compensation to their families if they are killed in action.

It cannot be emphasised enough that in the absence of armed conflict over the past two decades, the armed forces have become bloated. Between them, the Army, Navy and Air Force have hundreds of desk-bound generals, admirals and air marshals who have no real job to do. Such a top-heavy structure explains why the military is spending up to 60-70 per cent of its total budget on salaries, leaving little money to upgrade weapon systems or to maintain a high level of battle-readiness.

Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a former Army chief, and Council for National Security chairman General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the current Army chief, owe it to the Thai people and members of the armed forces to clean up entrenched inefficiency and corruption before the end of their respective tenures.

The future of democracy in this country depends on having a professional military that is capable of dealing effectively with national security threats while submitting to civilian rule. Even people who call themselves guardians of the nation and restorers of democracy can benefit from a dose of their own medicine.

--The Bangkok Post
Reprinted by permission.


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