Sonthi slams meddling

Army chief Sonthi Boonyaratkalin yesterday appealed for freedom from political interference to carry out his task of restoring peace to the deep South. At a press conference the morning after the worst challenge to his authority since he took charge of tackling the southern insurgency, Gen Sonthi said he was trying to organise talks with leaders of the Bersatu, or the United Front for the Independence of Pattani.

The group is believed to be behind the upsurge of violence in the region, including Thursday's bomb attacks on 22 bank branches in Yala.

''Talking to sympathisers or operating forces will not bear fruit. We need to initiate a sustainable peace-building process as the problem has evolved into something complex,'' said Gen Sonthi, who was given full authority two months ago to restore peace to the region.

Gen Sonthi admitted he did not know who the group's core leaders were or where they were based. But he stressed he would only send an operational officer to any talks _ in what was seen as a bid to avert the controversy which dashed a previous attempt to hold talks with the militants.

He said it was necessary to keep the three southernmost provinces ''free of political interference'' as political elements put officers at the operation level under pressure and usually put the blame on them.

''Free the military and let it do the job. And when things happen, everyone must give them moral support. I'd like to say this to state officials, people and politicians,'' said the army chief in apparent defiance of government criticism of his handling of the situation.

Caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was accused of passing the buck to Gen Sonthi when he inquired about the coordinated attacks on 22 bank branches on Thursday.

Gen Sonthi also said he was the only army chief who reached out to the officers at the operational level.

He said the militants' operations were being steered towards carving out the deep South as a separate state and engaging the world community.

To stop them from realising this goal, the army has tried to stem violent attacks and its success depended on three factors: the number of security forces, positioning of the troops and strategic operations.

Gen Sonthi stressed the need to have advanced technology such as smart ID cards to keep control in the troubled region.

Democrat deputy leader Surin Pitsuwan, a former member of the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC), said the army chief's comments reflected a lack of unity in the government in solving the southern problems.

''The politics he talked about is the kind of politics the Fourth Army chief once mentioned _ politics in the cabinet, in the ministries that issue contradicting orders, and scramble for budget and credit. The officials do not know who to listen to,'' he said.

Mr Surin also said that repeated failure to delegate power was a major hindrance to the problem-solving process, even though the army chief was given the power to tackle the insurgency.

Mr Surin voiced support for Gen Sonthi's planned negotiations with the militant leaders, but urged ''exploratory initiatives'' to explore the positions of each side.

Ananchai Thaipratan, another former NRC member, welcomed the army's move to change its methods in dealing with the situation in the deep South.

''I'm glad that the authorities are seriously thinking about non-violent methods. They should have realised for a long time that force alone cannot conquer the violence, and that suppression is not a solution to the chaos in the deep South,'' he said.

However, a religious leader said the task of tackling southern violence lay with the government, not the army chief.

Hayee-uma Torleh, of Narathiwat, said the militant acts were in defiance of state powers and mechanisms.

He criticised the way the government has tried to stay aloof from the problems.

'I don't know to whom he [Gen Sonthi] will be talking. The prime minister is indifferent and the ministers concerned are incompetent in solving the problems and do nothing but blame the officers.''

.....Bangkok Post