02/21/2007, 00.00
THAILAND
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High risk of civil war in southern Thailand

Violence grows with no end in sight in predominantly-Muslim provinces. Buddhist community is attacked even in its moments of celebration. Industrial infrastructure is now under targeted. For years the government’s answer was ‘send in the army;’ now experts fear sectarian clashes between Buddhists and Muslims.

Bangkok (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Violence is rising in southern Thailand in what seems to be turning into an all-out civil war. Islamic extremists, who continue their attacks against the Buddhist population, now have set their eyes on the industrial infrastructure. The killing of Muslims is also increasing. Meanwhile the ruling military junta seems to be more interested in consolidating its power in Bangkok than in finding a solution.

Last night suspected Muslim rebels set fire to a large warehouse for rubber in Yala province. More than 30 fire trucks struggled to douse the flames. According to an official of the Southern Land Rubber Co., a leading company in the sector and owner of the destroyed material, losses were estimated at 400 million baht (US$ 10.28 million). He said the company might even shut down because of the rising tide of violence and its 500 workers may lose their jobs. Rubber is a cornerstone of the region's economy.

This morning Islamic teacher Hamsao Yakariya, 45, was shot dead as he rode his motorcycle near his village of Ban Jurae in Tambon Rico, Sungai Padi district.

On the night of February 19-20, as thousands of people (especially Chinese) were celebrating Lunar New Year, a series of attacks took place, including 29 bombings within 45 minutes. Three people of Chinese descent were shot and killed that same night. Altogether, eight people were killed and nearly 70 wounded.

Organising and carrying out the various attacks must have involved at least 200 people.

Three people were arrested shortly after the attacks. They are said to have confessed their involvement and blamed a group known as Runda Kumpulan Kecil, which in Malay means Pattani State Restoration.

In the three southern provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani Muslims are in the majority in a predominantly Buddhist country. In all three there have been clashes between Muslims and Buddhists. Muslims want to secede from Thailand. Since 2004 about 2,000 people, mostly civilian, have been killed in what is a virtual terror strategy.

The rebellion broke out when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra adopted strong-arm tactics to nip separatist aspirations in the bud. The government sent in the army and gave it emergency powers under an emergency decree adopted in July 2005.

In the three years since Bangkok deployed 25,000 troops in the provinces (combined population of 1.8 million), the violence in those areas has risen instead of declined.

Emergency rule has led to an increase in insurgency violence and widespread abuses by the military and police. The government has not taken the necessary steps to find a peaceful solution.

Violence has increased since the military took over in September of last year as officers are more concerned with consolidating their power than with the situation in the south.

The coup's top brass were so concerned about ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra that they had radio- and phone-tapping equipment moved from the south to Bangkok.

The net result according to local sources is that rebels are now in control of much of the territory, in particular Muslim communities, through a network of informers.

“When a teacher was shot and set ablaze in the middle of a Muslim village, nobody dared give police details,” said Pranai Suwannarat, head of a multi-agency body charged with developing the relatively poor region. “No one wants to be seen as siding with the government, or they will face a similar fate.”

According to Srisompob Jitpiromsri from Pattani's Prince of Songkhla University, the situation has deteriorated so much that “clashes between Buddhists and Muslims may be inevitable if the government fails to stop the attacks.” (PB) 

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