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Thai PM Visits Tense Muslim Region - 2004-02-13

Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra traveled to southern Thailand Friday in an effort to diffuse tensions between the government of predominantly Buddhist Thailand and the Muslim community in the south. Tensions are high in the Muslim region since martial law was declared following a flare-up of violence.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's visit to southern Thailand follows a flurry of trips by senior officials aimed at easing growing local anger over heavy-handed tactics by the Thai military since the declaration of martial law in three southern provinces one month ago.

Three thousand special forces troops were deployed after gunmen raided a camp near the southern city of Narathiwat, killing four soldiers and stealing more than 100 weapons. Twenty government schools were set on fire around the same time.

Government soldiers, blaming Muslim extremists for some of the attacks, have been searching Islamic schools and detaining suspects, including several religious teachers.

Muslim Councils of the three southern provinces, Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani, Sunday said they would no longer help the government investigation. They say their credibility has been damaged because soldiers were searching religious schools without prior permission as had been agreed. The President of the Narathiwat Muslim Council, Abdulrahman Abdul Samad, told VOA prior to the prime minister's visit that people are afraid because of the killings and the detentions.

"When things happen in this area, usually the focus is on Muslim people first - teachers - and our Muslim brother first - not the other side," he said.

Senior Army and Defense Ministry officials initially dismissed the Muslim boycott. However, following fact-finding visits this week by two senior ministers, an apology was issued and the Muslim leaders Thursday agreed to resume cooperation.

In addition, sources say the investigation, which is now being commanded by authorities in Bangkok, has led to several arrests, including a soldier and several men whom the authorities say may be linked to small guerrilla groups fighting the central government.

Local leaders say residents fear mostly the military, whose tactics, they say, have created an atmosphere of terror - disrupting farming, investment and tourism. The authorities have blamed the violence at various times on criminal gangs, rivalries between police and the military and on personal disputes.

However, some experts believe that a small Muslim separatist movement, which had been dormant for more than 10 years, may be reviving, possibly with help from regional terrorist networks.

Local residents say, however, they believe the violence - for the most part - is due to long-standing rivalries over money and influence in a region where the central government's authority is weak and local officials wield a great deal of power.