As Thai insurgency spreads, government opens door to dialogue

A national commission held its first hearings this weekend in Thailand's Muslim south.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Caught in an escalating cycle of violence in its south, Thailand's government is giving peace a chance.

A bipartisan commission seeking ways to ease tensions held its first public hearings this weekend in Pattani, one of three Muslim-dominated provinces wracked by almost-daily bombings, assassinations, and arson attacks. Thai officials blame the violence on local militants linked to a long-running separatist insurgency against Bangkok's rule. But some analysts suspect Middle East money or regional terrorists behind the insurgency's increasingly sophisticated and lethal tactics.

In the latest attack, two Thai policeman died after a bomb exploded Sunday near the Thai-Malaysian border. The incident came hours after Thailand's Queen Sirikit made an emotional appeal for unity in solving a conflict that has claimed more than 600 lives since January 2004.

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Criticized for an overly militaristic response to the insurgency, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is now opening the door to a softer approach. Last month he offered to work with the opposition in parliament and proposed a partial drawdown of troops stationed in the area. Mr. Thaksin tapped former prime minister Anand Panyarachun to head a National Reconciliation Commission whose 49 members range across Thailand's political, religious, and social spectrum.

Mr. Anand, a respected elder statesmen, said the commission would spend several months exploring the roots of the conflict and make nonbinding recommendations to the government. "The work of the panel is not to provide instant solutions," he told reporters. "We are looking for sustained peace."

Political analysts and security experts say that the panel's aims are laudable but run the risk of being overtaken by events.

On April 2, in the first major attack outside the three southernmost provinces, two people died and 60 were injured in a string of simultaneous bombings at an international airport, a French-owned supermarket, and a hotel. The boldness of this and other attacks signal a growing terrorist threat to Thailand, and that worries its allies, including the US.

US officials describe the insurgency as a domestic problem that Thailand can solve. "We see no indication that international or regional terrorist groups ... are active in or creating the problem in the south," US Ambassador Ralph Boyce told foreign correspondents here last week.

But security experts who monitor the conflict disagree. They say Thai militants are aided by regional terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, a radical Islamic group with ties to Al Qaeda. And Middle East extremist websites have recently featured Muslim deaths in Thailand as a recruiting and fundraising tool.

"What is foreign involvement? We define it as a small numbers of people coming in and giving specialized training and indoctrination," says Paul Quaglia, an ex-CIA station chief who heads PSA Asia, a consultancy in Bangkok. "The bombs are getting bigger and better. The targeting is more sophisticated."

Thailand's southernmost provinces, where the majority of its estimated 2.5 million Muslims live, have long bristled under Bangkok's often neglectful rule. A decades-old separatist rebellion fizzled out in the 1980s, only to revive since 2001 under a younger leadership.

Amid the mounting tensions, some observers praised the peace panel as a step away from the brink. The Thai Rath newspaper called it "probably the best independent commission that we have ever had." Muslim leaders in the south offered cautious approval and called for an investigation of past human rights abuses.

But Anand said the panel will not probe the government over last October's violence at Tak Bai where over 80 Muslim men died, most of them of suffocation while in army custody, after security forces crushed a protest. The incident sparked international condemnation and evinced a partial apology from Thaksin. Critics say without a full reckoning for such abuses, any reconciliation is unlikely. "Every time we have an incident, the prime minister and other officials come to the south and ask people for their input. But then nothing happens," says Peerayot Rohimmula, an opposition party lawmaker in Pattani.

Analysts say this commission could be the last chance for a peaceful solution. "The Muslim separatists are trying to escalate the conflict with more arson and bombings, but Thaksin needs to stick with this more nuanced approach. If he overreacts, he's just playing into their hands," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a visiting fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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