Tue, Nov 02, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Thailand's king calls for `softer' tactics in south

DPA , BANGKOK

King Bhumibol Adulyadej has advised the Thai government to adopt "softer" tactics in handling growing unrest in the country's predominantly Muslim southern provinces, the prime minister said yesterday.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was granted a private audience with King Bhumibol on Sunday night to discuss mounting security problems in Thailand's three southernmost province -- Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala -- where more than 460 people have died this year in sectarian-related clashes.

"His Majesty advised me to use softer measures and avoid the use of violence in handling the situation in the south," Thaskin told reporters yesterday.

Thaksin drew international criticism, especially from Muslim countries, for a crackdown on a demonstration in Tak Bai, Nar-athiwat on Oct. 25 that left 85 people dead, 78 of whom allegedly suffocated or were crushed to death while being trucked to an army camp 120km away.

The prime minister, a billionaire telecommunications entrepreneur who started his career as a policeman, made a televised speech to the nation on Friday night in which he expressed regrets for the 78 deaths and promised to set up an independent investigation into the incident to punish wrongdoers.

The tone of the speech, however, was largely unrepentant and laid stress on the need to preserve law and order in the south, which has been plagued by violence since Jan. 4, when Muslim militants attacked and stole more than 300 different firearms from a Narathiwat army base.

The Tak Bai incident was sparked when a mob of 2,000 villagers gathered outside the town's police station to protest the arrest of six local militia men for handing their shotguns over to Muslim militants.

After a six-hour standoff, police and soldiers attacked the demonstrators with tear gas, clubs and fired "warning shots", some of them at chest level. Seven died in the crackdown.

Of the 1,300 arrested protesters, some 78 died with their hands tied behind their backs while being transported to Ingkhayuthut Borihan army base in Pattani.

The independent investigation into the deaths, led by former Ombudsman Pichet Sopontornpipitom, was scheduled to be launched yesterday. It will include religious leaders, lawyers and participants from independent organizations.

Yesterday, Thaksin criticized Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad for suggesting that Thailand grant autonomy to its predominantly Muslim southernmost provinces.

"Our feelings have been deeply hurt by Mahathir's remarks," Thaksin said. "This was not constructive advice."

He added that the remarks by Mahathir, who retired as premier last year, would not adversely affect Thai-Malaysian relations.

"There will be no impact on Thai-Malaysia relations because he is no longer the prime minister," Thaksin said.

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