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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 October 2006, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Thai coup brings hope for south
By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Bangkok

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (l) with Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, 18 Oct 2006
Surayud Chulanont says he wants to resolve the insurgency peacefully
Despite the sudden change in government after last month's coup, there has been little obvious difference in Thailand's troubled south.

The litany of bombings and shootings has continued, with more than 12 people reported dead in the past week.

But local Thais have mostly welcomed the coup, seeing it as a glimmer of hope on an otherwise bleak horizon.

"People are mostly happy about what happened - they are optimistic that things will now get better," said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a political scientist in the southern province of Pattani.

Even foreign analysts, many of whom have misgivings about last month's military takeover, concede that it could bring benefits to the south.

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

"The coup is a disaster for Thai democracy, but it was actually marginally positive for the southern provinces," said Francesca Lawe-Davies from the International Crisis Group.

Already there are signs of a change in policy from that of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The new government has signalled a willingness to talk to the Islamic rebels who are widely believed to be behind the violence - something Mr Thaksin always refused to do.

The new premier, Gen Surayud Chulanont, said on Wednesday that he wanted a peaceful solution to the crisis - in contrast to the previous regime's hard-line approach.

'Anything better than Thaksin'

Part of the reason for the renewed sense of optimism is the simple fact that Mr Thaksin is no longer on the scene.

"The mood after the coup was one of elation, as there was a feeling that anything had to be better than Thaksin," said Ms Lawe-Davies.

Dr Srisompob
I think the coup leaders, especially General Sonthi, have a better understanding and experience of the south than Thaksin
Dr Srisompob
The former leader was widely seen as someone who did not properly understand the people of the south - who are predominantly Muslim and have more in common with Malaysians across the border than they do with Thailand's majority Buddhist population.

"I think the coup leaders, especially General Sonthi, have a better understanding and experience of the south than Thaksin," said Dr Srisompob - referring to Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the army chief who headed the takeover.

"Sonthi is a Muslim, which certainly helps," added Ms Lawe-Davies. "He's also seen as receptive to local opinion."

Gen Sonthi and his military colleagues appear to favour a softer approach to the crisis than Mr Thaksin, who was often criticised both at home and abroad for his tough approach to fighting the insurgents.

The new leaders also seem more ready to consider the ideas of a recent independent report on the south, written by the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC).

The report contains a series of radical proposals, including the creation of a new regional body to mediate the conflict, the adoption of the Malay dialect Yawi as an official second language and the implementation of Sharia law.

The new government has already decided to reinstall a peace-building body which was dissolved under the Thaksin regime, and could well take up other NRC recommendations in the future.

Difficult negotiations

Mr Thaksin continually refused to hold negotiations with rebel groups over their demands for independence and greater autonomy.

But the new administration has already said it is willing to meet with insurgent groups, and talks could be held as early as next month.

Malaysia has offered to help facilitate the discussions, and Gen Surayud and his Malaysian counterpart Abdullah Admad Badawi met on Wednesday to discuss how to move forward.

Peace activist Souriya Tawanachai, playing his 'gun guitar'
People are pleased that Thaksin's out, but all they really want is peace
Peace activist Souriya Tawanachai
"The fact that Sonthi and the new government seem open to dialogue with the rebels sends an important message," said Ms Lawe-Davies.

But such talks are nothing new. It recently became clear that for more than a year, the Thai military has been meeting rebel groups on the Malaysian island of Langkawi, as part of a private peace initiative spearheaded by former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad.

Those talks failed to make much headway, but the difference now is that they will have the full support of the top levels of government.

Even so, analysts are not overly optimistic about their success.

One problem is that no one is really sure who represents the groups that are carrying out the majority of the killings.

While five insurgent groups attended the Langkawi meetings, there were some significant absentees, including the shadowy BRN co-ordinate, a new organisation thought to be one of the most radical.

"All the people talking so far have been from the older generation. The new, more radical groups are not represented," said Ms Lawe-Davies.

"We don't even know if there is an organised leadership that would be able to come to the table to represent them."

The prospect of talks is widely seen as a step forward, but there is still no guarantee that this will translate to peace on the ground - especially in an insurgency as complex and unclear as that in Thailand's deep south.

More than 1,500 people have died in the violence since January 2004, and the unrest is gradually getting worse rather than better.

Peace activist Souriya Tawanachai, who lives in the hard-hit province of Narathiwat, summed up the current mood well.

"People are pleased that Thaksin's out," he said. "But all they really want is peace."

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