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Thai Officials Ready to Talk to Southern Rebels - 2004-05-24


Thailand says it is ready to hold talks with Islamic militant groups in a bid to end almost six months of violence in the largely-Muslim southern provinces.

Thailand's offer to hold talks with Muslim insurgent groups in southern Thailand came from Defense Minister General Chetta Thanajaro.

The former head of the Thai Army, said the talks would be held with Wan Abdul Kadir Che Man, leader of the Muslim insurgent umbrella group Bersatu, at an undisclosed location in Thailand.

Mr. Wan Abdul Kadir told reporters in neighboring Malaysia that as a way of getting the talks started, the groups were willing to drop calls for a separate homeland in the southern provinces.

Mr. Wan Abdul Kadir has lived in exile for the past 15 years, since the Thai government accused him of membership in the Pattani United Liberation Organization, a Muslim separatist group.

A Muslim insurgency was active during the 1970s and 1980s, claiming the Thai government was neglecting the Muslim communities in the south and calling for a separate state there. More than 90 percent of Thailand's 62 million citizens are Buddhist, while most of its Muslims live in the southern provinces, adjoining Malaysia.

General Chetta said the government was willing to take up the offer of talks from the group, but accused Bersatu of masterminding the recent violence that began on January 4, with a raid on a Thai army depot that left four soldiers dead.

Since then about 100 officials, civilians, soldiers and Buddhist monks have been killed, and dozens of schools have been set afire.

When militants launched raids on security posts in three southern provinces on April 28, the army counter-attacked, killing 106 people, including more than 30 who had taken refuge in a local mosque.

Mr. Wan Abdul Kadir has denied his group was behind last month's attack. He said the violence arose from local political problems, and should be solved by dialogue. The government and private analysts at different times have blamed the violence on Muslim militants, bandits and local politicians. While some analysts say the talks are a good idea, others are not optimistic that they will lead to much progress. Thepchai Yong, group editor of The Nation newspaper group, says Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra should not expect too much from the talks.

"The government, especially the prime minister [Mr. Thaksin], I mean are too premature to jump to the conclusion that dialogue with this person, Mr. Kadir, will lead to a peaceful solution of the situation in the south," he said.

Mr. Thepchai said Mr. Wan Abdul Kadir will at best be a "go-between" for those actually responsible for the recent violence.

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