11/02/2006, 00.00
THAILAND
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Bangkok tries new approach to solve crisis in mostly Muslim south

by Weena Kowitwanij
The government plans to start dialogue with the rebels and reactivates a mediation agency shut down by Thaksin in 2001. It also began talks with leaders of the local Muslim community with Malaysia's backing.

Bangkok (AsiaNews) – Thai interim prime minister Surayud Chulanont, who has pledged to sack officials who failed to handle the crisis in the three southern provinces, is hopeful that the current violence will end as new generations come to the fore.

Mr Surayud, who was appointed prime minister a month ago in the wake of the military coup that deposed his predecessor, Thaksin Shinawatra, arrived in Pattani today for a tour of the southern part of the country, an area bedevilled by clashes between pro-independence Islamic rebels and the army as well as abuses by the local Buddhist community. However, unlike the previous administration his government is showing a greater willingness to engage the rebels in dialogue.

In a move aimed at negotiating an end to the daily violence in the three southern provinces, the new government has reactivated the mediation agency, the Southern Border Provinces Development Centre (SBPDC). Phranai Suwannarat was named as its new chief. In making the announcement, Mr Surayud reiterated his commitment to justice and equality and greater understanding for local needs.

The centre was shut down in 2001 by then Prime Minister Thaksin, who saw it as ineffective against the separatist insurgents. Instead, he preferred a military approach in the south and in July of last year enacted emergency laws in the region, which gave the military extraordinary powers.

The new government has renewed those powers for another three months, but is hoping the mediation centre will mean they are no longer needed.
Speaking today to more than 500 Muslim teachers, local officials, students and villagers, Prime Minister Surayud vowed to remove from the government any official assigned to the country's south whose actions fuelled Islamic separatism. Reaching out to Muslim youths, he asked them to build a good future for themselves and the country.

He said he met recently with leaders of Malaysia, which shares a border with Thailand, and Indonesia, who agreed with his shift of policy away from a "tough stance2 to one of reconciliation.

Coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin has already visited the southern provinces. A Muslim himself, he met local leaders pledging real development through education and good government.

According to Thai analysts, real cooperation between the parties is the right way to find a solution. Muslims in the south see themselves as Thai and separatists are but a small fraction of the population who use religion for personal gain.

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