Tension escalated between Thai-land's Buddhist majority and its Muslim minority yesterday as the country's defense minister warned of a bloody war between the two communities.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra traveled to Pattani province in the heart of the Muslim-majority deep south in an attempt to head off a rising tide of violence.
In the latest of a series of attacks, two Muslim men were shot dead by unknown gunmen in separate incidents Sunday night in Yala province, 770km south of Bangkok.
Police said the motive of the killings was unclear but they suspected they might be part of a continuing effort to destabilize the region.
On Sunday the Islamic Central Committee of Thailand, along with Muslim leaders in the southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, announced they were suspending cooperation with central government authorities because of "disgraceful" behavior by Thai soldiers. The Muslim leaders objected to a search of a local ponoh Muslim school in Pattani by about 70 soldiers who were looking for weapons stolen in a raid on a Thai army camp on Jan. 4.
Reacting to Muslim leaders' announcement, Defense Minister Thammarak Issarangkura said the government would not tolerate any kind of rebellion in the south.
Speaking in a radio interview in Bangkok, Thammarak compared the Muslim militancy in the south to the communist insurgency that was widespread in the area in the 1970s.
"During that time, many people died," he said. "Do we want that situation to happen again? The rest of the country won't let the people of these three provinces disrupt the lives of all 59 million people in Thailand. If there's war, a lot of people will be killed in those three provinces."
Thammarak criticized the Mus-lim leaders for violating their own religion and the principles of the Koran.
"Their god does not teach this kind of thing," he said.
Police, soldiers, teachers and Buddhist monks have been the targets of shooting and bombing attacks in the past three months, mainly in the five southernmost, Muslim-majority provinces.
Government leaders have attempted to play down the attacks as being the result of local conflicts and banditry. But the rising number of attacks, combined with intelligence reports of Islamic separatist involvement, have forced him to take a more active role in easing tensions.
Thaksin had been scheduled to return to Bangkok yesterday from Phuket but instead traveled to Pattani.
He said he planned to go to Narathiwat later in the day and attempt to meet with local Muslim leaders.