Go softly, softly: 4th Army head

Go softly, softly: 4th Army head

Interview: Lt Gen Santi says troops must exercise patience with insurgents and avoid use of force

"We will not use force and will avoid clashes with suspected insurgents," said Lt Gen Santi Sakuntanark, the newly appointed commander of the 4th Army Region.

The newly appointed commander of the 4th Army Region, Lt Gen Santi Sakuntanark, says security authorities will avoid the use of force against suspected insurgents in the strife-torn southern border provinces except for self-defence as law enforcement is stepped up to deal with them.

He also emphasised the urgent need to clamp down on the problem of illicit drugs in the far South while peace talks with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) separatist movement will go ahead.

Suspects involved in violent incidents have been urged to surrender and prove their innocence in court and they will be given the right to a fair trial, Lt Gen Santi said.

No use of force

Lt Gen Santi told the Bangkok Post that his overriding priority is to ensure public safety in the far South as well as combat the proliferation of drugs in local communities.

"While our primary aim is to protect people's lives and property, we will not use force and will avoid clashes with suspected insurgents. We will ramp up law enforcement in conducting raids and searches.

"To deal with those wanted on arrest warrants, we will negotiate with them. We have to exercise a maximum degree of patience but we won't resort to heavy-handed measures against them.

"If necessary, a siege may continue for days or even a week until they emerge from their hiding places and surrender," Lt Gen Santi said.

"But if they shoot first, authorities have to defend themselves. Authorities have to be extremely patient and must not use weapons first," he said.

Lt Gen Santi said he had informed local Muslim leaders and provincial Islamic committees of this policy.

"Suspects on the run have been encouraged to surrender and prove their innocence in the justice system.

"Some may have been misled and should clear their names in court so they can be reunited with their families. But if they are proved to be guilty, legal proceedings must take their course," he said.

Peace talks

Regarding peace negotiations with the BRN, Lt Gen Santi said peace can be restored to the southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat and certain districts of Songkhla through dialogue.

While the government's peace negotiators are carrying out their job, the 4th Army Region provides support by gathering and supplying security intelligence, he said.

Lt Gen Santi said the Thai peace negotiations team has engaged in talks only with the BRN, with Malaysia acting as facilitator, while the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) was not included in the most recent rounds of talks.

Pulo is a part of Mara Patani -- an umbrella organisation of Malay-Muslim separatist groups from southern Thailand.

He said the Thai side is ready to hold talks with other insurgent groups, but the Thai peace talks team has to verify their identities first.

Regarding Malaysia's role as facilitator, Lt Gen Santi said Malaysia will hold a general election next month. Thailand will have to wait for the political situation there to settle before proceeding, he said.

Southern veteran

Lt Gen Santi said he was born and studied in Bangkok but he has lived and worked in the far South for more than 20 years. "It is like my second home,'' he said.

He graduated from the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy in 1989 and started military service at the army's 23rd Infantry Regiment in Buri Ram. He was sent to the battlefield during the border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia at the time.

"I served on the front lines from 1989 until 1998 before enrolling at the army's Command and General Staff College. After graduation, I was sent to the far South in 1999," Lt Gen Santi said.

He served at the 5th Infantry Regiment under the 4th Army Region in the deep South and then went on to work at the joint Civilian-Police-Military Command 43, later disbanded by the Thaksin Shinawatra government.

"I have worked in all 14 provinces in the South. I know the southern region like the back of my hand.

"While we know who our enemies are during the clashes along the border, it is difficult to distinguish insurgents from ordinary people on the streets in the southernmost provinces," Lt Gen Santi said.

On the issue of the southern insurgency, he said he believed many of those who perpetrate violence may have been misled into thinking they will be able to achieve their goals easily.

"They are now growing tired of spending their lives on the run while those who are the real masterminds live in luxury overseas," Lt Gen Santi said.

"They want to go back to their normal lives, but they are afraid to do so because they are wanted on arrest warrants. Some cannot free themselves from insurgent groups because those insurgents threaten to harm their families," he said.

"Arrested suspects said they were not happy working for the insurgent movements. They did not achieve what they expected," Lt Gen Santi said.

"To say the southern violence will end during my tenure as the 4th Army Region chief would be an exaggeration. But I believe the situation will improve gradually. We are trying to find ways to curb daily violence,'' he said.

Morale booster

Lt Gen Santi also said it is important to boost the morale of security officers including civilians, police, and soldiers who are always at risk of insurgent attacks.

"Ensuring they receive welfare benefits and allowances they deserve is another morale booster," he said. "I have laid down a policy that welfare benefits and allowances must be paid in full," he added.

There have been complaints about delays in the disbursement of allowances and some unit commanders failed to explain the issue to their subordinates, he said.

"So, I instructed unit commanders to relay any orders from me to their personnel within one day. There are various online channels of communication available,'' he said.

"If I inspect any unit and learn that personnel know nothing about my instructions, the commander must be held responsible," Lt Gen Santi said.

He said regulations have been tightened to deal with officers transferred from other agencies following a recent scandal involving a police corporal accused of abusing her maid.

A probe by the Internal Security Operations Command's (Isoc) Region 4 Forward Command found Pol Cpl Kornsasi Buayaem, 43, attached to the Special Branch Bureau's 1st Division, was given a temporary role at the agency.

The probe found Pol Cpl Kornsasi had no record of actually performing any duties at the agency but still received perks and benefits, so the agency ordered her to return those sums and sent her back to the police agency to which she is attached.

"Now, people sent to work at Isoc Region 4 Forward Command and in the deep South must show up and report for work in person. If they fail to do so, their names will be deleted from the list," he said.

Drugs crackdown

Cracking down on illicit drugs in the far South is another priority, Lt Gen Santi said, adding drug addicts are now considered as patients under the law.

People who suffer mental disorders as a result of chronic and severe drug addiction can receive treatment at Thanyarak Pattani Hospital in Pattani's Muang district, he said.

Also, sub-district democratic councils have been set up to promote democracy and tackle problems in local communities in the southern border provinces.

These councils are made up of Buddhist and Muslim community leaders, public health volunteers and state officials. They find drug abusers in their communities and offer support and rehab to young people abusing drugs, Lt Gen Santi said.

Rehabilitation takes two to three months and young people taking part must receive the consent of their parents, he said. "This is one way to remove drug abusers from communities," he said.

The community-based rehab approach has also been introduced to help people struggling with mild to moderate addiction in the region, he said.

However, authorities have to intensify crackdowns on drug traders to ensure those who complete the programme can return to a drug-free society.

"As long as we have the narcotics trade, they risk being lured into drug abuse again. The problem is a threat that compounds the southern violence," he said.

Lt Gen Santi said more than 800 officials attached to Isoc Region 4 Forward Command are also required to undergo occasional urine drug testing. "I need to be sure that before authorities conduct raids and searches for drugs, they have a clean bill of health themselves," he said.

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