Advising Abhisit on the south

9 11 2009

A short report in the Bangkok Post (8 November 2009: “Rebel strikes likely to rise”) provides some useful information about the advice available to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and a little additional internet-based research a little more light on the links between the military-palace cabal and the current government.

In the report, General Wattanachai Chaimuenwong is cited as claiming that “insurgent violence in the far South is likely to increase as the regional terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah is adopting more extreme approaches…”. Wattanachai is said to be “a senior national security expert,” a “former adviser to ex-prime minister Surayud Chulanont” (one report states that Surayud and Wattachai were classmates) and is reported as serving “as an unofficial adviser to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.”

As well as invoking JI, the adviser warns that it is “trying to get the United Nations and Organisation of the Islamic Conference to speak out on the issue…” on “human right abuses…”. Wattanachai states that JI “wants to establish an Islamic state, entered Thailand between 2003 and 2004 and had trained youngsters to be guerrillas.”

This is not the first time Wattanachai has made JI claims (see below) and we’ll have more comments below on his specific claims.

But why has he made these claims at this moment? It is because Wattanachai is wanting to attack his old enemy General Chavalit Yongchauyudh. Following the Puea Thai Party chairman’s suggestion for a special administrative zone he called “Pattani City,” Wattanachai warned that “JI had tried to separate the Muslim-dominated provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat from the rest of the southern region.”

Of course, Chavalit is not proposing separation but a form of autonomy. This kind of proposal has been made by several others in the past, ranging from academics to royalist Prawase Wasi, and as Bangkok Pundit points out, also by Abhisit.

What can we make of Wattanachai’s claims as unofficial adviser to the prime minister?

Readers will know that PPT does not follow the events in the south in all of its detail, so in turning to the JI claims, we rely on available commentary. What does this tell us? GlobalSecurity.org is cautious in claiming JI operations in southern Thailand. The most recent International Crisis Group report states: “As earlier Crisis Group reports have stressed, the movement shows little influence of Salafi jihadism, the ideology followed by al-Qaeda and the Indonesia-based regional jihadi group Jemaah Islamiyah.” The report adds: “While militants’ words may be the same as those used by Islamist jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah, the movements are ideologically dissimilar. The struggle is rooted in Malay nationalism rather than any solidarity with a global Islamic jihad.”

As far as PPT can determine, the only mention of JI in Human Rights Watch reports is in connection with the disappearance of Somchai Neelaphaijit, when two of the persons he was defending were claimed to have JI connections. Amnesty International, which unlike its pathetic stand on lese majeste, does issue reports on the south appears not to link JI to events there.

It seems to PPT that most of the claims about a JI connection come from Wattanachai (see his 2007 claim here). When he has made these claims in the past, the government has usually discounted them. If readers find more than we have from independent sources, let us know.

But what of the man making the claims?

Back in 2001, Wattanachai was commander of the Third Army Region in the northern border areas and became embroiled in a border spat that included an alleged Burmese incursion into Thailand and a Thai response, including artillery shelling of Burmese troops, followed by a war of words and with the Burmese over their attacks on the Shan State Army. Wattanachai caste his actions in terms of Thai nationalism and pride. These retaliations began earlier, before Thaksin came to power, and there had been suggestions that Thai soldiers were supporting the SSA and Wattanachai was strong in support of his “Shan brothers.” In May 2001, Wattanachai accused the Burmese of deliberately shelling a royal project.

More details on this dispute are available in Desmond Ball’s working paper “Security Developments in the Thailand-Burma Borderlands,” for the Australian Mekong Resource Centre in October 2003. This paper reports that these events saw Chavalit and Wattanachai at loggerheads, with the former trying to get the latter sacked by Thaksin. According to Ball’s report, Wattanachai stayed due to support from Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda and the queen.

Surayud also supported him. In fact, after Surayud became premier, he seemed to rely heavily on Wattanachai, even having him investigate engineering problems at the international airport.

Following the 2006 coup, when he was adviser to Surayud, Wattanachai made the unsupported claim that “Muslim insurgents from southern Thailand were paid to carry out deadly New Year’s Eve bombings in Bangkok by politicians toppled in last year’s coup…”. According to the general, the ousted politicians “to discredit the current government.” As far as PPT can recall, no one was ever charged in this case.

In 2007, Wattanachai caused a brief stir when he claimed that JI was infiltrating Muslim communities in Cambodia. Wattanachai would later deny making this claim, but the story caused an angry riposte from Hun Sen. The claim saw some arrests of Cambodian Muslims entering Thailand, but nothing appeared to come from these arrests or Wattanchai’s claims. According to Ian Storey, Wattanachai “had earlier claimed that southern militants had copied their tactics from Al-Qaeda, including roadside IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and decapitations, of which there have been more than 30 since 2004.”

In this brief survey, two things seem clear. First, Wattanachai is prone to making grand and unsubstantiated claims, and second, he is a died-in-the-wool royalist who links the Democrat Party government to the Privy Council and the Surayud government.


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