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Violence Prompts Closing of 1,000 Schools in Thailand's Muslim South - 2004-01-28

More than 1,000 schools in Thailand's Muslim dominated southern provinces have been closed after a spate of violence. Some analysts think unnamed groups are attempting to stir up sectarian violence between the nation's Buddhist and Muslim communities.

The schools in the south were closed after teachers called for greater protection because some reportedly had received threats of new attacks.

More than 1,000 schools in the largely Muslim provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat are expected to be closed for at least a week.

Twenty schools were set on fire on January 4, at the same time dozens of men raided a military depot in Narathiwat province to steal guns. Despite an intense investigation, no one has been arrested for the attacks.

There have been fears of rising tensions between the Muslim and Buddhist communities in the south. In the past week, at least 10 people have been murdered, including three Buddhist monks hacked to death by machete-carrying youths.

In addition, some Muslims say the government's response to the attacks has been heavy-handed, with local people feeling threatened by troops.

About 10 percent of Thailand's population is Muslim, and most of them live in the south. The rest of the population is largely Buddhist.

Peerayot Rohimmula, a political scientist with the Prince of Songkhla University, says the murder of the monks is very surprising. "The situation right now is very confusing, you know, because we never know who stands behind [the killing of] the Buddhist monks and the people in Yala province," he said.

Mr. Peerayot says it appears there are agent provocateurs attempting to create conflict between the communities.

"We, the people, here understand that someone or some people try to create this problem, to make our people, whatever Thai - Buddhist, Thai Muslim or Thai Chinese - we stay here like brothers and sisters for a long time; we've never had this thing before," he said.

Other attacks have included the kidnapping of a Muslim religious leader. His disappearance followed the murder of a Muslim community leader.

The government says it suspects Islamic militants may have attacked the schools and the army depot. But other officials have indicated it could have been the work of criminal gangs, or the result of a power struggle between regional officials.

Anusart Suwanmongkol, Pattani Tourist Association president, says that apart from the schools being closed, the local situation remains normal, despite rumors of violence.

Mr. Anusart says he remains confident the government will arrest those behind the recent attacks.