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Redefining Thai national security threats

Feb 19. 2012
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By Kavi Chongkittavorn
The Natio

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The Three bombs that rocked Bangkok on Valentine Day by suspected Iranian operatives was a wake-up call for the Thai authorities to define anew their national security strategy, which has ignored the international terrorism threat. Despite the evidence an

The country’s latest five-year national security strategy (2007-2011), concluded last year,  pursued two priorities—internal security and stability as well as protection of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. What were the outcomes? Obviously, the strategy worked better when it dealt with external rather than internal exigencies. Political polarization after the 2006 coup that led to devastating conflicts and deaths among the Thais revealed the weakest link of the country’s overall security landscape. This conflict will remain and manifest itself in various forms of symptoms that should occupy the security policy-makers in years if not decades to come. In a similar vein, the turbulence in the southern provinces has always been considered the main cause for the country’s instability but not to extent of damages caused by political divisions, real or imagine. One of the key reasons was the incongruence between policies and realities on the ground in the South which does not bode well for long-standing settling of violence and conflict.

Worse, the level of perseverance among the Thai stakeholders has all but gone down. They are now inclined to take instant remedies and ignore any time-consuming resolutions. The day-to-day political narrative strengthens this national ethos. This in turn will undermine the country’s ability to protect its independence. What has befuddled the security policy makers in evaluating the internal environment has been the growing political awareness among the Thais which they concluded are constructive for further democratic development. However, this confidence has also led to polarizations and negative consequentials as ideas and group-affiliations have been driven to the extreme--using deep-root problems such as inequality and unfair resource distribution as conduits to build up their own alliances and bargain powers at the expense of national unity.
Although the impacts of natural disasters was mentioned in the 2007-2011 strategy due to the great Indian tsunami in December 2005, the Thai authorities did not foresee the other forms of natural threats--the infamous floods of October-November of last year, was the case in point. The great inundation ruined one-third of the country’s productive lands, not to mention the pricy industrial processing zones with big investors. The economic security threat was real as the country’s economic robust growth has grinded to a halt. There is an urgent need for a better coordinated plan administrated by experts on national disastrous management at all levels including effective preventive measures.
The second priority was more successful as the country has maintained its regional and international standing albeit a dent in ties with Cambodia. Thailand has made new friends and maintained its regional and international profile against all odds due to turmoil at home. Signatories to new international instruments and increased participations in the United Nations-sponsored peace-keeping forces and other international exercises including maritime security have been satisfactory. Efforts to promote peaces and stability in the regional and international context will continue.
Despite all the great shifts and changes of political environment--one thing has not and will not change is the protection of monarchy which remains the utmost important task of the country’s security policy makers. It remains at the top of the country’s objectives which also includes the overall well-beings of the Thai peoples. In the next five-year strategy (2012-2017), the integration with Asean, maintenance of the country’s respect and dignity as well as creating a balance of relationship with foreign countries to protect national interests will be included.
What is interesting is the terrorism threat does not feature prominently in the strategy drafted by the country’s top security policy makers, the National Security Council. The NSC, which chaired by the prime minister, views terrorism is terms of cross-border threats faced by other countries, especially Muslim countries with the West and vice versa. Generally speaking, the NSC analysts are aware of such threats caused by religious and political conflicts but they believe Thailand is not the target of international terrorism. This was evidently due to the deep-root thinking that the terrorists, whoever they might be, are not targeting the Thai citizens or assets but foreigners. They might use Thailand as a rendezvous or R&R but they meant no harm to the locals. Thai media analysts even labeled the alleged bombings and the blacklisted on money-laundry as parts of sinister plans to drag Thailand into counterterrorism networks. To be fair, quite a few, however, realized that with more potential terrorists using Thailand as a haven, it could cause a “risky situation” for the country. Last week’s incident coupling with the recent arrest of a Swedish-Lebanese man with links with the Hezbollah as well as strong warnings from various embassies to avoid Thailand have gradually pressured the whole security apparatus to review its national security strategy as it is now considered as a soft target.
Before recent newspaper headlines, the whole notion of terrorism attacks are very much confined to the Thai radical elements during the political conflicts and against the insurgents in Southern provinces. In the Thai language, koh-karn-rai does not espouse the full meaning of terrorism as known and practiced by the international community. By refining terrorism strictly in terms of internal security framework, the Thai authorities have overlooked its regional and international dimensions. After the 11th September, Thailand briefly became part of the US-led global counterterrorism plan. The country was praised when Hambali, the key Asian leader of Al Que-da group, was apprehended at Ayudhya in August 2003 with the collaboration from the US intelligence. Later on in exchange of trade and security privileges, former prime miister Thaksin Shinwatra upped his ante by dispatching Thai troops to Iraq at the end of 2003 but later pulled them out after two soldiers were killed. When the US declared Southeast Asia as the second front for terrorism, Thailand did not take this seriously. The Thai officials thought it was meant for other countries in the region such as Indonesia and the Philippines. Both now have sophisticated data system that hooked up with in international networks—something that Thailand could have benefitted greatly. Cambodia has collaborated with the US on counterterrorism measures since 2005 and now has a better warning system.
Although the policy makers realized the impetus of new security threats, they have yet to pay attention to one more issue--the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The country has been used as a transit point for illegal weapons and ammunition procurements and shipments, bases for money laundry and document forgeries as well as trafficking of dangerous radiation materials. In June 2003, a Thai man was arrested with 30 kilograms of the radioactive isotope cesium-137, which can be used in making dirty bomb. After years of delay, Thailand will sign the Proliferation Security Initiative in March in Seoul during the Nuclear Summit. It will place Thailand as part of an international network that prevent the spread of WMD or its component part.
In the future, with its central location and immigration’s leniency, or rather incompetency, ill-intent elements of violence and hatred will continue to use Thailand as a springboard unless there are effective counter-measures. A new danger is eminent judging from the failures of foreign operatives to establish local links and cells. The ongoing violence is the South has already provided a fertile ground for new recruits which could be rising given the Middle East’s increased political uncertainty. It is clear for the potential terrorists to operate on their own without local supports would be difficult.  
In the new national security strategy, which is expected to be completed soon, these new perspectives and issues must be included. Throughout the Cold War, the threat perception of national security was solely based on communism and insurgents. Then the perceived security threat switched from land-based aggressive to deterrence of drugs trafficking inside the country followed the  end of Vietnam war and the opening of the Golden Triangle. In the past years, political polarization,various forms of transnational crimes, maritime security and natural disaster are the major threats. This kind of cause-and-effect approach is no longer sufficient. A more comprehensive, integrate and forward-looking strategy is necessary.

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