Taking a break from his unusually zealous pursuit of the age-old draft dodging allegation against former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Defence Minister ACM Sukumpol Suwannatat last week floated an idea about a limited curfew in certain areas in the restive deep South and limited air support for ground troops on dangerous missions.
‘‘ ACMSukumpol failed to mention the army’s 350-million-baht surveillance airship bought during the tenure of former army chief Gen Anupong Paochinda but which has never actually been deployed on duty because it has yet to go aloft.
The defence minister's idea came after deadly insurgent attacks since the start of the fasting month of Ramadan about two weeks ago left more than 10 officials dead, including four soldiers killed and two wounded in a drive-by shooting in Mayo district of Pattani as they were returning from a mission to provide protection to teachers.
The fatal shooting was recorded by hidden surveillance cameras installed near the scene of the attack and has been seen worldwide since the footage was uploaded to YouTube.
Limited air support and limited curfew?
ACM Sukumpol appears to have good intentions but his idea of limited air support for the ground troops does not reflect the realities on the ground.
There are hundreds of missions carried out each and every single day by the security forces.
These include providing protection to teachers travelling back and forth between schools and homes, monks on alms collection rounds and hunting for suspected insurgents.
With just a small number of aircraft available to the authorities, it is clearly impossible to provide air support or air cover to the ground forces even on a limited scale.
Also, air support is useless against roadside bombings which have increasingly become the insurgents' favoured choice of attack.
Sukumpol: Good intentions
ACM Sukumpol said light attack aircraft such as the AU-23 might be deployed but he failed to mention the army's 350-million-baht surveillance airship bought during the tenure of former army chief Gen Anupong Paochinda but which has never actually been deployed on duty because it has yet to go aloft.
Probably, the defence minister didn't want to embarrass the army.
But where is the airship anyway? It was last seen on Aug 11 last year when this very expensive and wasteful white elephant was given a test flight in Pattani after it had undergone repairs by its manufacturer in the United States and returned to the army.
However, the airship was forced to make an emergency landing due to technical problems, in the army's lexicon - or a crash-landing, in layman's terms.
The airship is probably lying useless and abandoned in a hangar at Nong Chik airport in Pattani.
The likelihood for the ground troops is that there won't be air support and they will have to fend for themselves for their own safety and survival.
Being more vigilant and being on full alert at all times when they are in the field seems to be the best defence, although protective gear such as bullet-proof vests can help, but not every official is well equipped, especially the paramilitary rangers and Or Sor defence volunteers.
But whether the limited curfew, as suggested by the defence minister, will work in curbing the insurgency is debatable.
Several community and business leaders have already voiced their reservations about the curfew for fear that it will worsen business prospects or will disrupt the way of life of local residents.
It was pointed out that many violent incidents occur in broad daylight, such as the attacks which killed the four soldiers in Mayo district and five policemen in Raman district. As such, a night-time curfew will be pointless.
Lt-Gen Udomchai Thammasarorach, commander of the 4th army region, which is responsible for security affairs in the deep South, has brushed aside the idea of a curfew, saying the situation now does not justify the restriction.
So, the talk about air support, curfew and even the new command centre to handle the unrest situation in the far South, which was endorsed by the government last week, have raised two nagging questions.
Do the people who have a say in dictating the course of action in the far South really know what is happening there? And do they really care at all?
I do not have the answers now. But here are a few examples which may give a clue.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra floated an idea about a Yawi-language TV programme as a means to promote better understanding between the local Malay Muslims and the government when she first reacted to the violent incident in Raman district when five policemen were killed in a roadside bombing.
The truth is that there have already been Yawi-dialect programmes aired by TV channels 5 and 11. In addition, Thai TBS also has a programme, Dee Salatan na Daen Tai, every Monday from 1.30-2pm in Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, Songkhla and Satun.
The local Malay Muslims can speak and understand Thai well. Several were quoted by the Isra news agency as saying language is not the problem. The real problem is that the government or authorities have not solved the root cause, which is injustice.
Veera Prateepchaikul is a former editor, Bangkok Post.
About the author
- Writer: Veera Prateepchaikul
Position: Former Editor