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Muslim unrest flares in Thailand

Two policemen were killed Monday after Bangkok declared martial law in the south, the scene of renewed separatist violence.

By Frank BuresContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 2004



Just as residents of southern Thailand thought the New Year had come peacefully in spite of a holiday terrorism alert, a series of coordinated terror attacks has prompted the government to impose martial law and has renewed fears of resurgent Islamic separatism in the region.

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On Monday, bombs killed two policemen in the city of Pattani, near the Malaysian border. The attacks followed violence over the weekend in neighboring Narathiwat Province, where arsonists attacked 20 schools and militants raided an armory, killing four soldiers and stealing more than 100 rifles.

The unrest casts doubt on the efficacy of Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's drive to improve relations and integration between the country's 10 percent Muslim minority and the nation's Buddhist majority. The government - with unusual openness - has blamed Islamic groups for the attacks. While Bangkok has been careful to portray the militants more as bandits than separatists, some observers see the attacks as the latest sign of a latent separatism flaring up again.

"What's happening now has never happened before," says Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst with Jane's Defence Group. "You've never seen this degree of coordination, planning, and tactical confidence."

"It's confirmation of what has been increasingly apparent over the past two years," he says, "which is that the Thais have an insurgency problem on their hands."

Martial law has been imposed across the border provinces. The region was annexed by Thailand in 1902 as a buffer against British Malaya. Historically, the Islamic Sultanate of Pattani is considered by some to be the cradle of Islam in Southeast Asia. When the area was taken over by Buddhist Thailand, it had been mostly autonomous for several hundred years, and has chafed under Bangkok's rule ever since.

This political border was overlaid on a less stark division between Thais and Malays, who differ greatly in their languages, religions, and sensibilities. The 1970s and early 1980s saw this translate into a violent separatist movement seeking reunification with Malaysia. But a shift in government policy in the 1980's and 1990's brought peace to the region.

Surin Pitsuwan, a former foreign minister and a senator for the southern province of Nakhon si Thammarat, remains optimistic about the prospects for peace. The political system has opened up so much in the past 10 years that the carpet has been pulled out from under the militants, he says. But Mr. Pitsuwan, who has studied identity politics in the south, admits that while "politically and economically, [southerners] are oriented toward Bangkok, culturally they are still part of the Malay/Muslim world."

So far, Prime Minister Thaksin has promised some $700 million in development aid for the south, which includes the opening of an Islamic university in Narathiwat. But sporadic violence since late 2001 has fueled criticism that the integration push is failing.

"The fact that in the last few years, the tension has erupted again means that it's not about policy," says Thongchai Winichakul, "Or on the other hand, it means that whatever policy is there is not enough."

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