10/06/2006, 00.00
THAILAND
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Bangkok: Generals open to Muslim rebels

General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, who led the coup in Bangkok on 19 September, has accepted to start dialogue with Muslim separatist forces in the south of the country. The rebels are asking that the ex-premier, Shinawatra, be tried for crimes against humanity.

Bangkok (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The head of the Thai armed forces has accepted to open a channel of dialogue with rebels fighting for the creation of an independent Muslim state in the south of the country.

This is the first time a member of the Thai government has declared readiness to meet the rebels since the start of hostilities in 2004. The deposed prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, never accepted or sought any compromise with the guerrillas.

General Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, who led the coup on September 19, said Islamic leaders had requested the talks, which in any case were "talks, not negotiations". No official date has been set as yet.

Meanwhile, a guerrilla leader has called on the authorities to investigate crimes against humanity committed by Shinawatra and has proposed he be taken before the International Court of Justice to answer for the death and disappearance of suspected rebels.

Lukman Lima, head of the Pattani United Liberation Organisation, one of several groups fighting for Muslim independence, said the premier's hands were "full of blood".

In an e-mail message from Sweden, Lukman said: "The interim government would not be able to fully solve the divisions in the south unless they bring Thaksin Shinawatra and some of his generals ... to the court of justice in The Hague".

The Shinawatra government was criticised for its strong-arm approach and always refused to hold any talks with the rebels. The ex-prime minister, also accused of corruption and abuse of power, has always been detested in the three Muslim majority provinces where pro-independence protests broke out in January 2004.

According to many Muslims, the conflict would never have been resolved by the old government.

The heavy-handed management of the southern conflict was one of the reasons prompting the army to take power: just three weeks before the coup, General Sondhi had tried to convince the prime minister to take the path of dialogue but his proposal had been turned down.

Thailand's three Muslim provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat were annexed a century ago. Before they formed an independent Islamic sultanate. Most of the country's five million Muslims live here. Thailand has 64 million inhabitants, the majority of them Buddhists.

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