Thu, Jan 05, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Second anniversary of Thai insurgency marked by deaths

AGENCIES , SUNGAI PADI AND BANGKOK

Suspected Muslim militants killed two village officials in Thailand's south, police said yesterday, the second anniversary of the start of an insurgency in which more than 1,000 people have been killed.

In the sort of incident now commonplace in the provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, a motorcycle gunman shot dead 51-year-old Maromae Masae, a Muslim deputy village chief, as he ate breakfast at a roadside tea-shop.

"The gunman posed as a customer, then shot the victim with an 11mm pistol and got away on the motorcycle his friend was riding," a police officer told reporters at the scene in Sungai Padi, a Narathiwat village 1,200km south of Bangkok.

On Tuesday evening, a gunman using an AK-47 automatic rifle shot dead village-headman Hama Masae, also 51. The gunman lay in wait outside the victim's house and then escaped on a motorbike, scattering spikes behind him to deter pursuit, police said.

Despite the mounting death toll of Buddhists and Muslims -- the two latest incidents took the police tally to 1,076 -- the government says it is making progress in a traditionally lawless region with a century-long history of opposition to rule from Bangkok.

In what was an independent Muslim sultanate until annexed 100 years ago, 80 percent of people in the far south are Muslim, ethnic Malay and do not speak Thai as a first language, presenting a major problem for mainly Buddhist security forces.

Some 10 percent of Thailand's 65 million people are Muslim. The majority of the remainder are Buddhist.

Since a Jan. 4, 2004, raid on a military camp marked the start of a new separatist uprising, Bangkok has flooded the region with 30,000 troops and police with martial law powers.

It has also tried more unconventional schemes, such as an origami air-drop of millions of paper birds, or free English soccer on cable TV -- although the military and softly-softly approaches have met similar degrees of failure.

However, Deputy Prime Minister Chidchai Vanasatidya, who is responsible for day-to-day security in the south, said this week most of those responsible for the unrest had been caught and the government had "fixed 40 percent of the problem."

For once, analysts do not wholly disagree.

"The government has made some fairly significant strides in the last few months, particularly on the intelligence side," said Anthony Davis of Jane's Intelligence Review. "They've got a much clearer picture of what's going on."

Of particular note, Davis said, was a big drop in the number of roadside bombs triggered by mobile phone in November after the government switched off the signal of pre-paid phone users who had not registered their numbers.

However, there is a risk that leaders of the insurgency might turn to al-Qaeda for help.

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