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Last Updated: Monday, 27 February 2006, 13:56 GMT
Takbai legacy lingers in Thai south
By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Bangkok

People arrested after the Takbai protests
Muslim protesters at Takbai were crowded into army trucks
More than a year has passed since scores of Thai Muslims died in army custody in the southern town of Takbai, yet their relatives are still seeking justice and payment for damages.

Some of the dead were killed by security forces during a protest which turned violent.

But the majority died of suffocation after being arrested and herded into army trucks.

The October 2004 incident became a symbol of the ongoing unrest in southern Thailand, which has claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people since January 2004.

It also highlighted the often heavy-handed tactics of the police and army in suppressing dissent, as well as the hostility felt by local Muslim youths towards the Buddhist authorities - hostility which has led some of them to join insurgent groups calling for a separate Islamic state.

Despite the negative publicity and the time that has elapsed, little has changed in southern Thailand since the Takbai tragedy, according to regional analysts.

Forensic experts examine the site of a overnight bomb blast in Yala province, 5 February 2006.
Most of the attacks are small-scale bombings or shootings
"The Takbai incident haunts people here," said Mr Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a lecturer of political science at the Prince of Songkhla University.

Killings still happen on an almost daily basis - many carried out by suspected Islamic militants who target those who represent the Thai authorities, such as security personnel, community leaders, monks and teachers.

The police and army are still mistrusted by large sectors of the local, mainly Muslim community, and claims of unnecessary brutality are regularly made against them.

Arbitrary arrests

But the security forces have at least tried to improve relations with the local population in recent months, according to Francesca Lawe-Davies, a regional analyst for the International Crisis Group.

"They've done patches of cultural awareness training," she said, "and some of the better commanders have set up local groups bringing together Buddhists and Muslims."

But seemingly arbitrary arrests still occur, she said, citing examples of people who had been detained because they attended a certain school, or because their relatives had been involved in violence in the past.

Home to most of Thailand's 4% Muslim minority
Muslim rebels fought the government up to the mid-1980s
Suspected militants have upped attacks since 2004, targeting Buddhists
Security forces' response criticised by rights groups

"This sort of thing criminalises people who haven't done anything, and reinforces people's views that the state is there to persecute them rather than protect them," she said.

There have also been allegations that security personnel have taken part in extra-judicial killings, partly fuelled by the case of Somchai Neelaphaijit, a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer widely thought to have been killed by police and government officials.

In an effort to rebuff accusations of such killings, police have recently allowed forensic experts to exhume more than 300 unidentified bodies in the south.

Dr Pornthip Rojanaunand, who is leading the investigation, told the BBC she was just starting work to establish how these people died, but said "at least 80% are homicide cases".

It remains to be seen how many of these deaths relate to the southern insurgency.

Sophisticated tactics

While the authorities are making at least small changes in their approach to the violence, so too are the militants.

Police data shows that while the previous generation of insurgents were largely guerrilla fighters, confining themselves to remote areas, today's violence mostly occurs in towns and cities.

A seriously injured Thai teacher cries in pain on his way to hospital in Yala province, 3 February 2005.
Militants often attack teachers and other symbols of authority
The data also shows that, contrary to popular belief, most of the people killed by the insurgents in the past two years have been Muslims rather than Buddhists, as punishment for collaborating with local authorities.

"A lot of the more dramatic killings, such as the ambushes and beheadings, are of non-Muslims," said Ms Lawe-Davies.

"The drive-by shootings and small explosions tend to target Muslims," she added, saying that these incidents were not often reported in the press.

Another change, according to Mr Srisompob, is that the insurgents are becoming increasingly sophisticated in the methods they use.

According to Mr Srisompob, the militants may even have the capability to launch a large-scale attack.

"They try to limit the scale of violence to convey a political message and make people nervous. It's not that they're not able to make bigger bombs, they just don't want to alienate people locally," he said.

But one factor that has not changed in the ongoing violence is the shadowy nature of the southern Thailand insurgents.

While even the government has recently given up from claiming they are just common bandits, there is little concrete information about the groups thought to be behind the violence - such as Pulo (the Pattani United Liberation Organisation), BRN (the Barisan Revolusi Nasional) and GMIP (Gerakan Mujahadeen Islam Pattani).

Even their motives are somewhat unclear. They all claim to want an Islamic state, but whether the root cause of their struggle is religious or political remains a matter of debate.

"They have yet to articulate their goals, and they've not even claimed responsibility for a single attack," said Ms Lawe-Davies.

As the death toll from those attacks continues to mount, the government in Bangkok shows little sign of knowing how to tackle the threat, especially now Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been distracted by a political crisis.

"Right now, the government in Bangkok has serious problems trying to combat the growing opposition movement," said Mr Srisompob. "I don't think Thaksin has the time to think about the south right now."

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