Sat, Mar 20, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Arson in Thailand prompts separatism fear

REUTERS , BANGKOK

A Thai policeman holds his machine gun in front of a torched building in Songkhla province in southern Thailand on Thursday.

PHOTO: AFP

Arsonists set fire to 36 buildings, mostly deserted health clinics and police booths, in a rampage across Thailand's Muslim south that may reflect anger over a missing lawyer, ministers said on yesterday.

Interior Minister Bhokin Balakula told reporters the attacks were carried out overnight in the provinces of Pattani, Songkhla and Yala, where a surge of violence erupted in January when an army camp was raided and many guns were stolen.

More than 20 state schools were also torched that night, probably as a diversion for the army camp raid, in which four soldiers were killed.

That led some officials to believe a new surge of separatism was erupting in a region where a low-level independence war was fought in the 1970s and 1980s.

The government, however, blames a combination of militants, drug and arms smuggling mafias and political disputes, and police said yesterday that was behind the new wave of arson.

"This is the work of people who don't want to see the region at peace," said Police Major-General Thanee Thawitchsri, who is in charge of the south.

"They did this to show their existence," he told a radio station.

But Bhokin and Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh said the disappearance of Somchai Neelaphaichit, a lawyer representing fellow Thai Muslims accused of plotting attacks on embassies on behalf of the al-Qaeda connected Jemaah Islamyah, might have been a factor.

"Many well-wishers told me the incident was a wake-up call," Chavalit, who is in charge of national security, told reporters.

They said "what the government has done has been troublesome, including the disappearance of Mr. Somchai," he said.

Somchai, who was also spearheading a campaign to abolish much resented martial law in the south, last made contact with his family last Friday and they fear he might have been abducted.

The government has rebuffed suggestions by foreign human-rights groups it might have been responsible for Somchai's disappearance and says it is trying hard to find him.

Large parts of the three southern provinces were placed under martial law after the attack on the army camp, but the violence has continued with more than 50 people killed, including police, officials and Buddhist monks. There were no injuries reported in the latest arson attacks, in which two vehicles were damaged, military officials said.

But security around government offices, mosques, Buddhist temples and highways in the region had been tightened, they said.

The wave of fires came two days after Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra held a Cabinet meeting in Pattani that approved a package of tax holidays, soft loans and infrastructure projects worth 12 billion baht (US$304 million) over two years.

The National Security Council said in a report to that meeting the unrest was a combination of militancy, crime, corruption and politics and expected the violence to ease after local elections last weekend.

But almost daily killings of officials and sporadic attacks on government property have continued while Muslim community leaders urge the government to abolish martial law and accuse security forces of trampling on Muslim traditions.

Chavalit said yesterday the government would have to back off its "eye-for-an-eye" approach in the south, reflecting calls from other ministers for a more subtle approach in a region where many people speak Malay dialects, not Thai.

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