New threats for post-Covid-19 age
From peace talks with southern insurgents to devising a post-coronavirus future, the NSC head has a lot on his plate
The most powerful weapon to deal with security issues, in the opinion of National Security Council (NSC) secretary-general Somsak Roongsita, is an intangible asset everyone has but may not necessarily harness to its fullest.
"My father always told me, 'your brain is your greatest weapon'," Gen Somsak said when asked to share how he helps the government get through a range of problems from the impact of Covid-19 to cybercrime and the southern insurgency.
All of these challenges are just another kind of mental exercise, he believes.
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to him making frequent appearances in public to answer questions about how his security agency is helping, particularly in keeping businesses and peoples' activities in line with the state of emergency.
As the "new normal" increasingly refers to how people's lives are likely to change in the aftermath of the pandemic, Gen Somsak also quickly links the term to security issues.
People will come to depend on tools that facilitate working from home and virtual contact to suit social distancing guidelines, and will inevitably end up living a greater part of their lives online, he says.
"And with online lifestyles come online threats," Gen Somsak said, warning that "cyber-attacks will be more intense".
The government and businesses must be kept abreast of new tricks which cyber-criminals are using to attack financial institutions and national infrastructure, he said.
"If their protection fails, they need to have cyber-resilience."
These preparations do not require tremendous manpower as the process is more about expertise and predicting how the virtual landscape may change, according to Gen Somsak.
Economically, Gen Somsak thinks Thailand can escape the worst effects of the pandemic if makes full use of its strengths.
"A country with a strong healthcare system which is also an economic centre in the heart of Asean can quickly bounce back from a crisis," he said.
He also pointed to the "sufficiency economy" concept, introduced by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great during the 1997 financial crash, as another indicator of Thailand's ability to chart a course during the coming months.
"The concept teaches us to be more self-reliant," Gen Somsak said, adding its benefits have been proven and it is already part of the government's 20-year national strategy, which will direct the country's economic and social development until 2037.
"Thailand cannot ignore this sufficiency economy as doubts are growing over whether key economic communities like the European Union and the Asean can really help people in their regions deal with the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Nobody can say for sure they can do it," Gen Somsak said.
"That's why each country needs to rely more on itself."
Gen Somsak's interest in economics and the changing face of modern society stems from a personal history that is somewhat removed from the stereotypical path that many take into the upper echelons of the army.
During his childhood, young Somsak was a top-grade student and generally thought of as a scholar in the making.
And even though he later decided to choose a more adventurous route by studying at Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, he still had a passion for the complex world of knowledge.
After gaining top scores in his class, he was awarded an army scholarship to study for a Bachelor's degree in electrical engineering at Virginia Military Institute in the US. His post-graduate study was also in the field of electrical engineering.
The roles he later took on in the army and at the Defence Ministry mostly involved technology, infrastructure and policymaking before he was appointed to lead the NSC last year.
Among the NSC's priorities is a mission to solve the insurgency in Muslim-dominated provinces, which was sparked by separatist groups and has plagued the deep South since 2004.
"We prefer to approach the problem with development projects rather than military missions," Gen Somsak said.
The government, too, is attempting to follow this path, spending more in regional development than military operations in recent years, and building the confidence of locals, he said.
Gen Somsak is also a key member of the Thai delegation responsible for maintaining a dialogue with Mara Patani, an umbrella organisation of various separatist movements, to talk them into ending the long-running conflict.
Despite a list of achievements that he is only too happy to point towards, his rise to the top of the NSC has not been without criticism.
Observers have questioned why the last three NSC leaders, including Gen Somsak, have come from military units and accused Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha of favouring candidates with a similar military background to himself.
"Wherever they [agency heads] come from, be it the military or civil service, is not important," Gen Somsak argued.
"The point is whether they can do their duty as an NSC chief."