Bangkok – General Sonthi Boonyarattakalin, a Muslim, was chosen as Thailand's new army commander-in-chief because of his military track record and not his religion, said Defence Minister Gen Thammarak Isarangura na Ayutthaya. But given the troubles in the Muslim-majority deep South, it is inevitable that some will link Gen Sonthi's appointment to the government's efforts to win hearts and minds in the region.
"Gen Sonthi, as a field commander, has valuable military experience which could help in integrating the armed forces," Gen Thammarak said on Aug 19 after the military reshuffle list was submitted to King Bhumibol for endorsement.
The Defence Minister said he did not take religious faith into account when he considered who should succeed Gen Prawit Wongsuwan as head of the army. Gen Sonthi will be the first Muslim to serve as a Thai army commander-in-a-chief.
"Being a Muslim does not mean one could not climb up the ladder to the top army job. Gen Sonthi is a tough army commander and being a Muslim could make him more culturally sensitive when he tackles security problems down South," he added.
Muslim leaders in the South were quick to welcome Gen Sonthi’s appointment.
Mr Nideh Waba, president of the Association of Islamic Teaching Schools, said: "This will definitely have a psychological effect on Muslims here, particularly young people, who may have been misled into believing that Muslim Thais are second-class citizens. With this appointment, the government has clearly shown not only to Muslims here but also the whole world that it has no policy of obstructing the advancement of Muslim officers to senior positions."
The former judge in Pattani added that appointing a Muslim to a key military position could be a major step in helping to tackle the unrest and bridge any misunderstandings among local Muslims and security forces.
Mr Abdullahman Abdulsomat, chairman of the Narathiwat Provincial Islamic Committee, said: "His appointment does not mean security problems will be swiftly tackled, but it will at least help reduce tension ... which will definitely have a major psychological impact on people."
* Sonthi's appointment warmly received by Muslim leaders (Bangkok Post, Aug 21)
* Muslim named as commander-in-chief in Thai military reshuffle (Bangkok Post, Aug 20)