Thu, Nov 25, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Thai government losing battle for Muslim hearts

ESTRANGEMENTNothing the prime minister has tried so far appears to have dented the alienation that Muslims in the south feel toward the government

AGENCIES , PATTANI AND BANGKOK

A dozen Muslim men were watching a television show at a tea shop when the school next door went up in flames in Thailand's deep south.

They ignored it.

Soldiers arrived without fire-fighting equipment and tried to tackle the blaze with a bucket as their colonel pleaded to groups of people watching the 36-year-old school burn down.

"This is everyone's school," the colonel cried. "Please help the soldiers put it out."

They ignored him.

Lohtu Elementary School was one of five schools which went up in flames on Tuesday night, just hours after Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said the situation in the south was improving.

The reluctance of Muslims residents to help save the school, which they see as a symbol of the government in Bangkok, spoke volumes about the estrangement of Malay-speaking people in an over-whelmingly Buddhist nation.

Three of the five schools were in the Kapoh district of Pattani Province where police shot dead two armed Muslim militants on Monday.

"They probably set them on fire because two of their men were killed," the colonel told reporters in between urging the Muslim villagers to help try save the building.

They were the latest of scores of schools torched in the three southernmost provinces since January, when the violence erupted with a raid on an army camp.

Since then, almost 500 people -- government officials, suspected militants and civilians -- have been killed in the violence.

Nothing Thaksin has tried seems to have dented the alienation.

He believes lack of education and unemployment are the two main factors behind the violence in a region where Muslim separatists fought low key insurgencies in the 1970s and 1980s.

He has pledged to spend 12 billion baht (US$300 million) on education, job creation and infrastructure to accelerate regional development. But appeals for people to come forward with information to help end the militancy appear to fall on deaf ears.

"Many Muslims are still reluctant to help the authorities with tip-offs because they don't trust officials," said a Muslim scholar who declined to be identified.

Thaksin's latest campaign -- to get each of country's 63 million people to fold a paper dove to be dropped over the region on King Bhumibhol Adulyadej's birthday on Dec. 5 as a gesture of peace -- is shrugged off in the south.

The prime minister is undeterred. He brought experts to his Cabinet meeting on Tuesday to teach ministers how to fold a paper dove and signed the wings of one.

"If a child gets my bird, he or she will get a scholarship," Thaksin told reporters "If an unemployed adult gets it, he or she will get a job."

Meanwhile, Thaksin said the most senior state official to be gunned down in the south was accidentally shot by one of his own guards, discounting initial claims of an assassination attempt.

He said forensic tests on the bullet removed by surgeons from Pattani Province's Deputy Governor Soonthorn Litpakdi revealed it had been fired by a member of his armed escort at close-range.

"We are now investigating which volunteer guard accidentally fired the shot," Thaksin said.

Soonthorn was shot in the back on Tuesday while visiting the scene of an earlier shooting incident.

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