Thai generals ask former assassin to be security adviser

Thai generals ask former assassin to be security adviser - IHT, May 25, 2007

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BANGKOK: Frustrated by their inability to pacify a Muslim insurgency and concerned about rising impatience toward their rule, Thailand's generals have named a former commando and self-described assassin as their top security adviser.

The appointment this month of Pallop Pinmanee, a retired general notorious for his harsh tactics but admired for his survival instincts, appears to be an acknowledgement that the military-backed government's conciliatory approach toward Muslim insurgents in southern Thailand has failed.

"The way to solve the problem in the south is to get the people on your side," Pallop said in an interview this week. But if the violence continues, he said, the military should carry out "search and destroy" missions against the insurgents. "If we cannot make them surrender, then we have no choice - we have to destroy them."

Pallop's appointment also seems to signal that the generals who overthrew the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September, and who have trodden lightly against their political opponents so far, are contemplating harsher and more repressive actions toward dissent.

Pallop said Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the general who led the September coup, asked him to serve as an adviser during a round of golf in March. The two men once served together in a special warfare unit.

Pallop, a retired general who turned 71 on Friday, speaks about his days as an army-appointed assassin in a casual, matter-of-fact tone and offers little to dispel his tough-guy reputation. He was the leader of what he called the "killer team," a secret seven-man unit of the army in 1970 that carried out extrajudicial killings. "The assignment was to kill the leaders of communist groups all over Thailand," Pallop said.

Pallop also served as a guerrilla mercenary for the CIA along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the 1960s.

But he is perhaps best known for his decision to raid the Krue Se mosque in southern Thailand in 2004, a controversial move that left 32 insurgents dead. The raid helped reignite the centuries-old conflict between Thai Buddhists and ethnic Malay Muslims.

"Diplomacy is not his strong point," Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, said of Pallop. "His expertise is to kill people and deal with things by force."

It is too early to tell how influential Pallop will be in the government. But amid rumors of countercoups and maneuvering by Thaksin's allies, the generals seem to have calculated that they needed the skills of a master tactician. Pallop has been involved in three military coups and is alleged to have once plotted an assassination against an army commander.

"When things get hairy, you get Pallop on your side," Thitinan said. "He knows how to fight back."

Pallop began his new job on May 3 at the Internal Security Operations Command, a military agency created under another name in the 1960s as a tool to fight communists in the country. Returning to ISOC, as the agency is known, was a rehabilitation for Pallop, who until last August was the deputy director of the agency but was fired when Thaksin accused him of plotting to assassinate him.

Pallop ridiculed the idea at the time, saying, "If I had done it, I guarantee that the prime minister would not have survived."

Pallop says he is using ISOC's network of 700,000 volunteers around the country to gather intelligence on opponents to the generals' rule.

"They are our eyes around the country," he said.

On Tuesday, he plans to meet with one of the critics of the junta, Veera Musikapong, who has led demonstrations and is sympathetic to Thaksin.

"To get the tiger cub you have to go to the tiger's cave," Pallop said, adding that he would warn Veera that protesting against the junta risked destabilizing Thailand further.

If this approach does not work, the junta will have to consider emergency rule to stop what he calls "mobs" from protesting, Pallop said.

"We are trying to avoid this because it would mean a lot of violence and fighting," he said of emergency rule.

The Thai constitutional court is scheduled to decide on Wednesday whether Thaksin's party and the leading opposition party should be disbanded for fraud, a ruling that could further unsettle a country yearning for a return to normalcy.

Opposition to the ruling generals has mounted in recent months as discussions on a new constitution have dragged on and the situation in the south has deteriorated.

After seizing power in September, the junta vowed to take a soft approach toward the southern insurgency in contrast to Thaksin's hard-line stance. Last November, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont issued a far-reaching public apology on behalf of the Thai state for what he called flawed government policies toward local Malay Muslims.

But this and other olive branches failed to stem the daily killings of civilians - rubber tappers, municipal workers and teachers chief among them.

Pallop says he can beat insurgents at their own game because it's a game he has played himself - in 1966 and 1967, when he led guerrilla units in attacks against North Vietnamese traveling the Ho Chi Minh Trail. "The strategy of hit and run I know very well," Pallop said.

Pallop declined to reveal exactly how many suspected communists he and his six fellow assassins killed in 1970 - "many, many," he said - but he lamented one particular rebel who got away: Payom Chulanont, the father of the current military-appointed prime minister, Surayud.

"We almost got him," Pallop said dryly.

He did not want to name the people he assassinated because it would upset too many relatives still alive today, he said.

Pallop appeared relaxed in the interview and said he had stayed alive this long because he was a careful person. His colleagues seem more concerned. Aides carried into his office a birthday present from a fellow general in the Thai Army: a bulletproof vest.
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