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Thai Prime Minister Seeks to Reassure Businessmen in Restive South

  • Scott Bobb

Thailand's prime minster, Thaksin Shinawatra, has paid his second visit in a week to the Muslim-dominated south in an effort to ease fears and bolster business activity there. The economy in the South is reeling from 20 months of violence in which more than 800 people have been killed.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra Friday visited markets in the southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. He was there to reassure merchants who say they have received death threats if they open their shops on Fridays, the Muslim day of prayer.

Mr. Thaksin's office minister, Suranand Vejjajiva, speaking by telephone from Yala, acknowledged that some shops were closed, but said the government was urging people to resist intimidation.

"A lot of religious leaders have come out and supported the government [position] that it is not wrong to open shops on Fridays," he said. "And we have reassured the people that the security will be here and shops can be open. So I think today we see a lot of shops open and we will see more."

The prime minister is touring with his team of economic ministers in an effort to boost local businesses, which have been hard hit by the violence.

He met Friday with business leaders in Pattani. One of these, Tourism Association Chairman Anusart Suwanmongkol, said Mr. Thaksin was told that the major concern is surviving the downturn.

"Their most pressing concern has to do with how to keep their business afloat in the current situation," he said. "They want some financial relief from the government, some tax relief, some relief on the utilities, whatever helps the cash flow."

He said tourism in particular has suffered in the south because of negative publicity.

Agricultural sectors like the rubber and fruit industries have also been affected because workers are afraid to go into the fields.

The three southernmost provinces experienced a low-level insurgency in the 1970s and '80s, by rebels seeking to separate the Muslim-dominated region from predominantly Buddhist Thailand. The violence subsided in the 1990s under an amnesty program.

However, it resurfaced last year with an attack on an army base, and since then more than 800 people have been killed, mostly in bombings and drive-by shootings.

Authorities say many of the attacks result from disputes between criminals, drug traffickers and corrupt local officials. However, they acknowledge that some attacks have been staged by separatist groups. The general public has been angered by what it sees as a heavy-handed response by security forces trying to control the situation.

The Thai government is seeking to boost the region's economy through investment schemes and job programs. But it also recently passed emergency security measures giving authorities extrajudicial powers, which has civil rights activists concerned.