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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 January, 2004, 15:37 GMT
Thailand wakes up to southern threat
By Nualnoi Thammasathien
BBC Thai service, Bangkok

A wave of attacks in southern Thailand has forced the government to change tack from blaming "bandits" to conceding, for the first time in decades, that separatist militants are operating inside the country.

Thai-Muslim men leave an armoury base past a Thai soldier standing guard in Narathiwat, Thailand
Southern Thailand is now under close government scrutiny
The Thai press have seen this as a rare climb-down on the part of the Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, whose government declared martial law in most of the affected region, the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala.

These three provinces, bordering Malaysia, are home to many Thai Muslims, most of whom are also ethnic Malays. The area is poorer than much of Thailand, and perceived heavy-handed rule from Bangkok led to some Muslim separatist activity during the 1980s. Small-scale attacks on government posts and personnel have continued.

But the Thai government always downplayed the threat, a strategy which is now being widely criticised.

People will always be [siding] with those who have power. If we are stronger, they will be with us. If [the militants] are stronger, people will be with them
General Kitti Rattanachaya, government security adviser

Officials admit that because the area was not declared dangerous, security at an arms depot that was raided was lax, despite recent intelligence that more than 100 potential fighters were moving near the border.

By acting immediately and declaring martial law, the military should be able to take control of security in the south.

Senior military officials are also talking about the need to rebuild intelligence networks, in an area where local people are more hostile to the authorities than anywhere else in the country.

Government officials admit that they do not have local trust and support.

"People will always be [siding] with those who have power," said General Kitti Rattanachaya, a security adviser to the prime minister. "If we are stronger, they will be with us. If they (the militants) are stronger, people will be with them."

Many observers believe that strategies used to combat Thailand's communist insurgency in the 1980s may be brought back.

General Chawalit - the deputy prime minister now in charge of operations in the south - played a leading role in that campaign, as did others selected to assist him.

By putting martial law into force the government will only widen the gap between people and the authorities
Nik Abdul Ragib, Thai-Malaysian relations expert
One of them, General Kitti, has made clear his view that especially trained military forces are needed to handle the militant threat, and that a psychological campaign is needed to win back public support.

But local people in the affected areas have dismissed any quick fix solution.

Muslim community leaders and businessmen warned that heavy-handed government action could drive away tourists and foreign investors, as well as disrupting people's day-to-day lives.

"This is an environment different from that during the years of the high risk of insurgency," said Nik Abdul Ragib, who is studying Thai-Malaysian relations in Narathiwat.

"People do not support separatists, they only fear for their safety, which means in practise less co-operation with the authorities. By putting martial law into force the government will only widen the gap between people and the authorities," he said.

Somboon Bouloung, a lecturer at the University of Songklanakharin, Pattanee Campus, said: "There's a long history of distrust of government officials among local people because of the far from transparent operations in the past.

"This has led to the local people seeing themselves as scapegoats when officials want quick-fix solutions to please the big bosses in the capital," he said.

Hunt for suspects

Meanwhile, the hunt continues for those who carried out the violence.

Officials seem to believe that well-trained fighters from various local groups are co-ordinating their efforts. They suspect that most of those involved are Thais who hold dual nationality: Thai and Malaysian.

This would enable them to take refuge with relatives or friends across the border. Some Thai officials have even suggested that the leaders of these groups have fled into the Malaysian state of Terengganu, a suggestion Malaysian officials have been quick to deny.

The Thai authorities are determined to stop the violence from spreading.

The national police chief, Police General San Sarutanon, told reporters that there were 12 potential targets outside the region, including Bangkok.

His comments angered other high-rank officials, who accused him of alarmism.

As the shock of the recent attacks continues to reverberate, the government clearly needs to move quickly to restore confidence.

Muslim group 'behind Thai raids'
08 Jan 04  |  Asia-Pacific
New attack in southern Thailand
07 Jan 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Armed raids in southern Thailand
04 Jan 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Timeline: Thailand
17 Dec 03  |  Country profiles
Country profile: Thailand
01 Nov 03  |  Country profiles

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