Mon, Feb 21, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Thailand, Philippines rethink terrorism

DEVELOP A STRATEGY Phillipine and Thai authorities are working to coordinate information and resources regarding militants in their region

AFP , KUALA LUMPUR

Harsh government responses to Muslim separatist violence in Thailand and the Philippines risk drawing international terrorists more deeply into the region, analysts say.

Conflicts in Muslim areas of Buddhist Thailand and the mainly Christian Philippines have been fuelled by local issues but are getting increasing attention from Islamic militants outside the region, they say.

Arab websites supporting Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network have begun "highlighting the Thai issue," said Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert with Singapore's Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.

"Prolongation of this conflict will mean greater involvement of other regional groups and global groups like al-Qaeda. The southern Philippines, where separatist conflicts have raged for decades, already has a "permanent al-Qaeda presence," Gunaratna said.

Increasing foreign involvement, particularly in Thailand, is "certainly a risk," said Robert Broadfoot of the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Consultancy.

"The grievances in southern Thailand are local but as we saw in Indonesia and the Philippines, al-Qaeda and international groups have been able to take advantage of those local situations.

"Their scope has broadened beyond strictly domestic issues to where they are commenting on United States policy in Iraq and international issues."

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Philippines President Gloria Arroyo both pledged tough action against separatists in the wake of bomb attacks last week which killed a total of 16 people and wounded nearly 200.

Ten were killed in three blasts in the Philippines and six in the deadliest single bombing in Thailand's Muslim-dominated deep south, where separatist violence has claimed about 600 lives last year.

Arroyo vowed to crush the rebel group Abu Sayyaf, which claimed the Valentine's Day bombings and is said by the US to have al-Qaeda links, but added: "The government shall focus its operations against terrorist cells and there should be no fear of a witch hunt."

Thaksin, however, has unveiled a plan to cut state funds to villages deemed supportive of southern separatists.

With Muslims already complaining of political and economic marginalization, critics say the new plan will simply make things worse.

Increased Muslim suffering could make southern Thailand a fertile area for exploitation by al-Qaeda militants, Gunaratna said.

"We saw on Jan. 5 an Arab Web site for the first time carrying images of the Tak Bai incident" in which 87 Muslim demonstrators died, most of them through suffocation after being piled onto the backs of army trucks.

Thaksin has charged that militants seek refuge across the border in mainly Muslim Malaysia and even train in the jungles in the north of that country, accusations which have led to sharp exchanges with Kuala Lumpur.

Instead of antagonizing Malaysia, Gunaratna said Thailand should seek a special relationship with its Muslim neighbor, establishing common databases on militants, setting up joint training and operations and sharing resources and experience.

"We are seeing that the operational leaders and the spiritual leaders are shuttling through the porous border between Malaysia and Thailand but we do not see any Malaysian government support for these groups," Gunaratna said.

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