Tue, Nov 09, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Group of academics blasts Thaksin's hard-line stance

AFP , BANGKOK

A group of 144 academics upped the pressure on Thailand's prime minister yesterday by releasing an open letter demanding he apologize for the deaths of 78 Muslim protesters piled on army trucks by security forces.

The academics from 18 Thai universities said Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra should take responsbility for the deaths following a riot two weeks ago in the insurgency-wracked Muslim-majority south of the country.

Thaksin has said the deaths should not have happened but has stopped short of a full apology. Yesterday, he said he could apologize if he thought it would help.

"I am ready to do anything if it helps to stop the problem. I could apologize if it will help, I can walk to every single house if it helps," he told reporters.

"The government has to do many things to heal people's feelings after the incident."

A total of 87 people died after troops broke up the riot at Tak Bai in the province of Narathiwat with tear gas, water cannon and gunfire. The majority suffocated or were crushed after being bound and left for hours on trucks.

Since the tragedy, Thaksin has continued to take a hard line against militants blamed for an insurgency that has left at least 539 people dead since January.

But the academics in their letter said the government had failed in its tough policy of suppression.

"We totally disagree with the policy of using force to solve the problem and we call for the government to change its policies," said the letter.

"We also agree the prime minister should consider his mistakes and express his responsibility.

"As the highest person in power, the prime minister cannot deny responsibility for the failure of the policies and the least the prime minister should do is apologise to the people, especially Muslims and relatives of the dead people."

Thaksin said he was prepared to meet the academics to discuss their concerns.

Muslims make up about 4 percent of the population of predominantly Buddhist Thailand, who are in a majority in four of the kingdom's southern provinces.

An insurgency has flared sporadically for decades in the south, which used to be an independent sultanate until it was annexed by Thailand in 1902.

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