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Thai PM Tours Troubled Southern Muslim Provinces  - 2004-08-27


Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has visited Thailand's troubled southern provinces, surrounded by tight security. Mr. Thaksin's trip comes a day after a bomb in the area killed one person and injured dozens.

The prime minister began his tour in Pattani province Friday. Over 4,000 police and soldiers have been deployed to the southern provinces.

More than 300 people have been killed in sectarian violence there since January. The authorities blame the almost daily killings and bombings on Muslim separatists.

Mobile phone services and other radio signals were cut as part of the security around Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to prevent militants from setting off remote-controlled bombs.

The bomb that ripped through a bustling market Thursday, killing at least one person, may have been detonated by remote control.

Tulsathit Thaptim, managing editor of The Nation newspaper, says Thursday's bombing indicated the attacks were becoming more indiscriminate.

"It is obvious that the militants are getting bolder and bolder, and they are caring less about collateral damage," he said. "For the first time, yesterday, a lot of children were wounded in the bomb attack in Narathiwat province."

Despite the attacks, Mr. Thaksin told reporters he was unafraid, and planned to continue his tour of the region as scheduled.

But Mr. Tulsathit said there are concerns that some comments by senior officials and Mr. Thaksin threaten to inflame the situation.

Mr. Thaksin blames the unrest on radical Muslim teachers, but many analysts say it is unclear exactly who is behind the spate of violence.

"The southern problem is largely [about] religion, but it is apparently being dealt with by a leader who is very outspoken, and sometimes doesn't think before he speaks or acts; and who sometimes issues key orders in a fairly imprudent manner," said Tulsathit Thaptim.

Mr. Tulsathit says the government needs to recognize the religious sensitivities of the region, rather than stereotyping people, such as Muslim teachers or community leaders.

Thailand is mostly Buddhist, and most of its small Muslim community lives in the three southern provinces that border Malaysia.

The authorities blame the recent violence on Muslim separatists. A separatist rebellion simmered in the region for decades, but was largely quelled in the 1990's.

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