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Thailand Seeks Closer Ties with Muslim Nations


The Thai Government is seeking closer links with Muslim countries, part of a two-pronged strategy to end separatist violence in three of its southern provinces. Even as the government was announcing the plan, at least 13 more people died in the area this week in bombing and shooting attacks. Ron Corben reports from Bangkok.

A security report released by the Thai Cabinet this week says the government will pursue closer ties with Muslim countries, especially Malaysia and Indonesia.

The statement, part of a draft foreign policy paper on security, said closer contacts would also be developed with international Muslim organizations and foundations.

Also this week, the Thai military reported it had rounded up more than 1,900 suspected militants during recent sweeps across the provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani. The military calls 300 of those in custody "leading insurgents," who supervised and staged attacks.

Analysts are viewing these moves as a two-pronged strategy by the government to end the three-year-old Muslim insurgency in the three provinces, which sit on Thailand's southern border with predominately-Muslim Malaysia. The violence has claimed almost 2,500 lives since 2004.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, says the strategy aims to give the government a better picture of how and where the separatists are receiving their support.

"The network in the South has been known to be connected to overseas foundations," he said. "Another strategy is to engage those countries - those foundations and those individuals - to understand what's going on and to get some cooperation and assistance as to how to contain or disconnect some of these linkages."

Nitti Hassan, president of the Council of Muslim Organizations of Thailand, says the government is casting a wide net in hopes of attracting Muslim help.

"The government expects that the Muslim country or the Muslim leader will help to solve the problem from the deep South. They think the insurgents may receive the influence from the Muslim country," said Hassan. "So the government has invited the [religious] leader from Egypt, from Saudi Arabia, also Indonesia, and from Malaysia also."

Thailand has already sought help from Malaysia in opening a dialogue with separatist leaders. Thai intelligence sources say further such efforts are expected this month.

For now, knowledge of the militants is limited. One organization, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, is linked with the RKK Commando Force. The two are seeking a separate Muslim entity in the region, which was an autonomous Malayan sultanate until annexed by Thailand 100 years ago. Intelligence sources say the RKK has fewer than two thousand militants, with ties to private Islamic schools.

No separatist group has issued a manifesto, however, and for the most part, the violence has consisted of random shootings and bombings. Both Muslims and Buddhists have been targeted.

While the government seeks answers, the violence continues. At least 13 people have been killed in the region this week and another 30 wounded. In one incident, two Muslim villagers, a 61-year-old man and his 26-year-old son, were gunned down near their home in Narathiwat.

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