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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 October 2004, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Fears mount in Thailand's south
By Tony Cheng
BBC, Bangkok

Thailand's Muslim community has reacted with shock and frustration to the news that 78 Muslim men died in police custody after a protest turned violent.

Woman in southern Thailand (27/10/04)
The mood is of shock and anger
Islamic leaders have called for calm in the three majority Muslim provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala that sit on Thailand's southern border with Malaysia.

However, they fear that the grief being felt in the community is quickly turning into anger.

"The situation will become worse", one young woman in Pattani province told BBC News Online.

She asked not to be named because she feared reprisals from the authorities.

But she was blunt in her assessment of the situation.

This is an excessive use of force, but this time they must do something, I will insist on that when I meet the prime minister
Dr Charan Maluleem

"The government has used violence to solve the problem, and it hasn't worked," she said, echoing the feelings of many people in the region.

"The police and soldiers don't understand the culture here. The authorities should use local people, but they don't, and they just make the situation worse".

These sound like radical opinions and few people are willing to express them in public.

But religious leaders in southern Thailand are worried that many moderate Muslims are turning away from a government that they claim has failed to protect them against the violence that has flared in the region since the beginning of the year.

Loss of trust

Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has stated that he understands the problems of the Muslim community in the south. But he has also demanded that respect is shown to the forces of law and order.

We cannot let the acts of insurgents destroy law and order in the south
Jakrapop Penkhair

The prime minister's spokesman, Jakrapop Penkhair, is keen to stress that the government does not want to isolate the Muslims in the south.

"It's not us against them. We must have more dialogue at local and national level, but it's really about understanding each other," he said.

But the problem for the government will be to win back the trust of a community that sees these deaths as just the latest example of excessive force from the police and military.

"We must have a fair and just investigation of the recent events", says Mr Penkhair.

"The truth and facts of the incident must be investigated, but in the meantime we cannot let the acts of insurgents destroy law and order in the south".

The government has maintained that Monday's violence was triggered when insurgent groups aggravated what had been a peaceful demonstration.

But according to Muslim scholar Dr Charan Maluleem, blaming insurgents is over-simplifying the issue.

"The problem is not one group. We have some religious fanatics, we have some separatists. Drugs have become involved and even politicians who are trying to get more power. We need to get people to listen to the moderate line, but it is very difficult," he said.

But Dr Charan, who advises the prime minister on Muslim affairs, thinks that the government will now see what is actually going on in the south.

"The government realizes what the military has done. This is an excessive use of force, but this time they must do something, I will insist on that when I meet the prime minister," he said.

The conflict in Southern Thailand has now claimed the lives of more than 400 people since the beginning of this year.

Dr Charan maintains that the lives of ordinary Muslims are not at risk, but he concedes that the outlook is not good.

"What we worry most about is the future. We must modernize in the South, but if you ask what the future holds, most Muslims will say it is very uncertain".

Thailand to probe protest deaths
27 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Thai protesters mourned
27 Oct 04 |  In Pictures
Thailand's restive south
26 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Eyewitness: Thai violence aftermath
12 May 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Thailand
23 Oct 04 |  Country profiles

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