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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.

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The government efforts to integrate southern Muslims into the economic and political fabric of Thailand have run up against longstanding cultural barriers.

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"In Thailand, part of the criteria for unity is being the same," says Thongchai Winichakul, professor of Thai history at the University of Wisconsin. He notes that while acceptance of Chinese has improved in recent years, Thailand's six million Muslims remain a people apart.

"It's true that many of them are not seen as Thai, and many of them for a long time never wanted to be Thai. We have a local population who remain very much with a double identity," Mr. Winichakul says.

Thailand's active role in the US-led war on terrorism has further estranged those in the south who see the global conflict as a war on Muslims. Since Sept. 11, the Thai government has been moving closer to Washington and was recently granted "major non-Nato ally" status, alongside such countries such as Japan, Australia, and Israel.

"The division in the South is problematic," says Chaiwat Satha-Anan, director of the Peace Information Centre at Thammasat University. "Muslims' perception of the American government's policies and actions certainly has been negative throughout the region and the world."

In Thailand's southern border provinces, Osama bin Laden remains a popular folk hero, and his image can be seen on taxis and T-shirts throughout the region. Many analysts agree that the international situation has inflamed the local one, but there's less consensus on the strength of possible links between international terror groups like Al Qaeda and local separatist groups such as Barisan Revolusi Nasional and Mujahideen Islam Pattani.

"I have no doubt that Al Qaeda operates in southern Thailand," says Angel Rabasa, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation who is studying political Islam in Southeast Asia. "After all, Hambali was captured in Thailand."

Hambali was the operations chief for Jemaah Islamiyah, which carried out bombings in Bali and Jakarta and was planning major attacks in Bangkok. Four other JI members were arrested in Narathiwat as well. JI's stated goal is the formation of an Islamic super state across Southeast Asia that would include southern Thailand.

"I believe that there are definitely, unquestionably links between Islamist insurgents in southern Thailand and JI," says Mr. Davis. "But it would appear that these links have not translated into the kind of attacks that JI is interested in, from which one can infer that the links are not that tight."

Angel Rabasa agrees that the extent of those links is unclear. "I think most Islamic radicals in Southeast Asia have far more modest objectives," he says. "What they're looking for is more of an Islamic content within their own societies. And in countries that are not a Muslim majority, they are seeking to separate themselves."

Material from the wires was used for this report.