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Thai-Malaysian Talks Aim to End Violence in S. Thailand - 2004-04-01


Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra says he will visit Malaysia next week to meet with Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The talks will try to end months of violence in the Muslim-dominated southern part of Thailand. Thailand's prime minister announced the visit a day after heavily armed men stole a huge quantity of explosive materials from a quarry in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat, bordering on Malaysia. Thai officials say they fear militants planned to use the explosives for terrorist attacks during the Thai new year festival later this month. Mr. Thaksin says part of the talks with Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi will focus on militants who have dual Thai-Malaysian nationality. These militants are accused of carrying out last week's bombing in a southern Thai border town that injured 28 people, including eight Malaysian tourists. Thai foreign ministry spokesman Sihasak Phuangketkeow says close cooperation is essential.

"The prime minister would like to emphasize, that we would like to work closely together with the Malaysian government on the investigation, especially the recent incident, and also in terms of arresting those involved," he said.

At least 56 people have been killed in southern Thailand since January, when armed men attacked an army base, killing four soldiers and stealing hundreds of weapons. Exactly who is behind the violence remains unclear, with government officials and analysts blaming everyone from corrupt politicians and gangsters, to rivalry between the police and military, to Muslim separatists. Peerayot Rohinnula, a political scientist from Thailand's southern Prince of Songkla University, says several groups - both Malaysian and Thai - are using the violence for their own agendas. "So some separatist groups may use this situation or take this opportunity to stir the problem," said Peerayot Rohinnula. "I think it is a mix between police officials, some military officials, and some members of separatist movements, and ordinary criminals."

Thai authorities largely squashed a low-key Muslim separatist movement from the 1970s a decade later, but some officials fear a renewed campaign, one with links to the radical Islamic Southeast Asia terror network, Jemaah Islamiyah.

Mr. Thaksin says those behind the violence in the south are using separatism and religious ideology as a cover for maintaining vested interests. The majority of Thais are Buddhist, but southern Thailand is home to the country's minority Muslim community.

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