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Thai Government Examines Measures to Ease Tensions in South

Thailand's prime minister has promised new legislation respecting human rights will replace martial law in the country's troubled south. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra also says the new laws will protect officials in the area, where sporadic violence has killed more than 600 people in the past 16 months.

Senior Thai leaders say they would like to lift martial law in southern Thailand and replace it with less repressive laws to deal with chronic unrest there. They also want to close the cases of 58 men who have been detained since a deadly demonstration last October.

Local leaders say the detainees were mere bystanders in a protest that resulted in the deaths of 85 men. They say their release, along with an end to martial law, will help defuse tensions in the region.

A national reconciliation commission recommended the moves. The commission is seeking to promote understanding between the people of the south, where the population is predominantly Muslim Malays, and the rest of mostly Buddhist Thailand.

The chairman of the commission, former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, says the proposals are part of a new policy by the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. "Up to about two or three months ago, the government was still conducting aggressive policies of confronting, of combating, of suppressing," he said. "I think after over a year it's more than apparent that perhaps that was not the right approach."

Security forces have been accused of using excessive force in trying to halt the violence that has killed more than 600 people since January of last year.

Some senior military officials oppose the new policy, saying it will hinder efforts to end what they see as a movement by Muslim militants to create a separate state in the region. But Mr. Anand says he does not believe that religious differences are the major issue.

"The extremists would tend to use religion merely as a façade," he said. "I'm sure that Islam as a religion teaches and promotes peace. A small group of people were trying to exploit the religion for their own political ends."

The former diplomat says that more than half of the murders were by gangs because of disputes over narcotics, smuggling and other criminal activities. He says only a fraction were committed in the name of separatism.

Mr. Anand says the main problem is that people in the south mistrust the central government because of long standing grievances and perceived injustices. "The root causes would be the inability of the government and authorities in the field to give proper recognition to the differences in culture and religion and in the way with which they view the problems," said Mr. Anand..

He notes that few of the murders have been solved and says this adds to the problem. He says the government should investigate the incidents and release the information to the public because greater openness will help dissipate the mistrust.