Tue, Jun 15, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Bangkok in difficulties over southern region

Worsening unrest in Thailand's south has forced the government to begin contending with difficult problems

By Nopporn Wong-Anan  /  REUTERS , BANGKOK

After five months of violence that has killed more than 200 people, Thailand is still groping to find the cause of and develop a strategy to end the unrest in its mainly Muslim south, analysts say.

Despite an ultimatum by Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to his top security staff last week to restore peace in the region in 30 days, violence persisted with shootings of security officers and civilians, arson attacks and bombings.

Thaksin, who chaired a high-level meeting on Friday to find long-term solutions for the poorly developed region, has ordered security forces to "go on the offensive" by stepping up patrols and intensifying searches to prevent attacks.

But analysts argue that the government still has no clue who or what is behind the latest violence in a region where a Muslim separatist insurgency fought in the 1970s and 1980s but petered out in 1990s.

"The government does not have a clear target. They just don't know who the culprits are," said Chidchanok Rahimmula, a security lecturer at Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani province in the south.

"The problem is so complex, and there has been so much procrastinating by past governments, they have no clue where to start," she said.

The unrest, which began with a January raid on an army camp and escalated in April when 108 militants were killed by soldiers and police in a bloody uprising, has hurt economic growth and undermined investor confidence.

Since January, the government has entertained various theories on who or what is behind the unrest in a region that is home to most of Buddhist Thailand's 6 million Muslims and that borders Muslim Malaysia.

"We have the military's views on how to tackle the problem, the bureaucracy's views and local political leaders' views," said Steve Wilford, Southeast Asia analyst for Control Risks Group in Singapore.

"Some of these views are not being heard, and some of them are competing. I think there is a degree of drift right now as to how to face up to what is going on in the south," he said.

At first, gunrunners were blamed for the army camp raid in which four soldiers were killed and 400 guns, most of them M-16 rifles, were stolen, authorities said, for possible sale to rebels in Sri Lanka and in Indonesia's Aceh province.

Police quickly arrested two dozen Muslim suspects, who were later freed after prosecutors decided there was not enough evidence against them.

Since then, the government has only pressed charges against a southern member of parliament from Thaksin's ruling Thai Rak Thai party in connection with the raid. He has denied charges of treason and premeditated murder.

"The lack of arrests with sufficient evidence to prosecute underlines the degree of confusion as to where the violence is coming from," Wilford said.

"Names of groups have been bandied about and names of some individuals, but nobody really seems to have a bead on how these attacks are coordinated and what kind of structures are orchestrating them," he said.

In the months after the January raid, the almost daily killings of police and government officials led Bangkok to blame crime gangs upset by a bloody government war on drugs last year.

The April 28 uprising -- in which young militants, many of whom believed they would be protected from bullets by wearing sacred cloths and bathing in holy water, attacked government targets in three provinces -- changed everything.

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