Accessibility links

Muslim Region of Thailand Remains Uneasy - 2004-01-19

About two weeks after attacks suspected to be the work of Islamic militants left six army and police personnel dead in southern Thailand, the predominately Muslim region remains uneasy. Muslim leaders say heavy security is hurting the tourism business and damaging relations with local communities.

Heavy security continues in southern Thailand more than two weeks after the worst violence in years shook the region. Suspected Islamic militants attacked a military armory, leaving four soldiers dead, and set fire to 20 schools.

Local leaders are saying the troop and police presence is hurting the economy, which was poised to benefit from tourism during the upcoming Lunar New Year holidays.

"I think the impact is enormous actually, because the images have gone out and to a lot of people they look [like] it's quite dangerous," said Anusart Suwanmongkol, president of the Pattani Tourism Association.

Mr. Anusart says hotel occupancy rates during Lunar New Year may fall as much as 80 percent as tour groups from both Thailand and Malaysia cancel their visits.

As investigations continue, many leaders in southern Thailand are saying the central government's security tactics are heavy-handed and are creating a climate of fear and distrust in the Muslim population.

A political scientist at Prince of Songkhla University, Peerayot Rahimuilla, says the government's actions have alarmed people.

"The villagers now they feel uncomfortable to live in the society … because they are afraid of so many military and policemen in the area," he said.

So far, the authorities have blamed the attacks on Islamic militants, criminals and people with military training. They dismiss the idea that the attackers have links to regional terror groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, but admit they do not know who is responsible.

Mr. Peerayot says the lack of information is feeding apprehension. "The government didn't have clear evidence to show who did this thing. … If you talk to local people they don't believe at all there's a separatist or some guerilla movement in the south," he said.

Thailand's southern provinces are home to most of the six million Muslims living in the largely Buddhist country of 62 million.

Four of these provinces saw violence from Muslim and Communist insurgents during the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, most separatist groups have dissipated, with the few remaining turning to banditry, extortion and smuggling.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is pledging to bring greater economic prosperity to the region, and rebuild relations between the Muslim community and the central government.

But for Thailand's Muslim population, a return of confidence in the government now lies with the administration's ability to heal the tensions inflamed by violence.