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Malaysian Delegation Holds Talks in Thailand on Recent Violence - 2004-05-04

A top-level Malaysian delegation is in Bangkok for talks with the Thai government on the recent outbreak of violence in Thailand's predominately-Muslim southern provinces. The Malaysian delegation is led by Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, who held talks Tuesday with Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The visit was a sign of the growing concern in both capitals over an outbreak of deadly violence in Thailand's far south.

Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai said the meeting's focus was the sharing of intelligence, as part of overall efforts to counter the unrest.

The largely-Muslim provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, Songkhla and Pattani, have been engulfed by violence since January. Killings by alleged Muslim separatists have taken the lives of almost 100 local officials, policemen and civilians. Thailand as a whole is almost 90 percent Buddhist.

The government retaliated last week, with Thai security forces killing 108 suspected Muslim militants, including 34 who had seized a mosque.

That prompted accusations of heavy-handedness from international human rights organizations. The crackdown also led Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to offer temporary refuge in Malaysia to Thai citizens fleeing the violence.

Bill Case, a lecturer in politics at West Australia's Griffith University, sees Prime Minister Abdullah as more flexible than his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad. He expects Mr. Abdullah to maintain cooperation with Thailand, even if the bloodshed by the Thai forces has made that more difficult.

"It seems there is a much more pragmatic national leader within Malaysia now, and a pretty moderate Islamic figure who is keen to improve relations with other countries in Southeast Asia - not just Southeast Asia, but the rest of the world," he said.

Analysts say a combination of Muslim separatists, criminal gangs and local politicians is behind the violence.

In an effort to restore local harmony, Buddhist monks and Muslim clerics conducted an interfaith ceremony at an army camp in Pattani on Tuesday.

The Thai government is setting up an independent investigation into the military's attack on the mosque. The army general who carried out raid has been recalled.

The Thai army nevertheless reinforced its strength in the region this week, sending 1,400 troops to assist the 2,500 already there.

At the same time, Prime Minister Thaksin has warned that escalating violence may damage the outlook for the Thai economy, which has been forecast to expand by eight percent this year.

Tourism, a major source of revenue for Thailand, may be threatened, with Australia and the United States advising their nationals against unnecessary travel to the southernmost provinces.