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Political meddling prevents clarity in deep south

Publication Date : 20-10-2012


In a recent interview, Thailand's newly appointed National Security Council (NSC) chief, Lt-General Paradon Pattanathabutr, said his goal is to strengthen coordination between the military-led Internal Security Operation Command (Isoc) and the civilian-led Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC).

That was a textbook mission statement - inter-agency rivalry is nothing new in Thailand's bureaucratic culture.

He went on to say that knowledge and experience were not as important in his new position as having the trust of the prime minister, because he would be dealing with secrets relating to national security.

The Cold War is over, and today's NSC has neither the clout, nor commands the respect and fear, that it used to. The perception of the threat to national security is not as clear as it was in the days when all fingers pointed to the communist insurgency and its foreign backers.

Today, security agencies, government officials and policymakers are still at odds over what constitutes security threats, especially now that the country finds itself in a colour-coded political crisis with no end in sight.

Moreover, intelligence gathering is no longer as centralised as it was during the Cold War. "Intelligence" has become a game that anybody and everybody can play. The conflict in the southernmost provinces is a case in point.

Just about every agency and ministry - Interior, Police, Fourth Army Area, Royal Thai Army, SBPAC - has sent people abroad to speak with exiled leaders of the long-standing Patani-Malay separatist movements.

Most come back with information for their agency's boss to sit on, but nothing worthy in terms of policy recommendations.

While every agency has its own spies and spooks, this doesn't mean its information translates to better knowledge. This is because at the heart of the issue is not the wellbeing of the state but the survival and longevity of the agencies.

Nevertheless, there is a general agreement among agencies that the violence in the three southernmost provinces, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, poses a serious challenge to the country's wellbeing and resources. 

But the appalling attitude of successive governments has been that if the violence is confined to the Malay-speaking South, the policymakers in Bangkok can live with it.

What this means in real terms is that policymakers continue to rely on a bureaucratic approach, while in fact a solution would require national leaders to think not just in political terms but also to re-examine Thailand's concept of statehood.

The high-profile attacks of recent months in the deep south have nevertheless forced some in the government to think about the violence in political terms. Sadly, the end result has been a knee-jerk reaction that saw security agencies rearranged to form the so-called Pentagon II, designed to give the impression that there is civilian control.

Unfortunately, our political leaders do not understand that security and intelligence officers must be freed from political interference if they are to come up with sound analysis of the situation. To be effective, national security must not serve political interests.

Just a year ago, this government shunted aside an NSC chief in order to make room for a national police chief who was being moved so that Pol General Priewpan Damapong, brother-in-law of de facto Pheu Thai Party leader Thaksin Shinawatra, could become Thailand's top cop. It says much about the government's supposed seriousness of intent in the South when a head of operations there can be pushed aside in such an undignified manner for an even more undignified reason.

Sad to say, the shambolic state of the NSC and other security/intelligence-related agencies is a direct result of government interference.

So far, these agencies have been used as a dumping ground, or politically exploited in ways that compromise their ability to operate. It is time our policymakers summoned the wisdom to give outfits such as the NSC and the National Intelligence Agency the breathing space and freedom necessary to deliver sound analysis of the problem. They need to make policy recommendations without worrying whether what they say will please political leaders who are here today and gone tomorrow.



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