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Can Thai Royalty Stop the Violence?

Violence continues to escalate between Buddhists and Muslims in southern Thailand in the wake of a government action that killed scores of Muslims. Civic leaders fear still more bloodshed after Thai troops forced more than a thousand Muslim protesters into trucks on October 25th. Some 80 died, mostly from suffocation after being held for hours stacked on top of one another.

Thailand is predominantly Buddhist except in the southern four provinces where the population is ethnic Malay and about 85 percent Muslim. Unrest here has flared for decades, says Karl Jackson, professor of Southeast Asian studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington. “The south has been a difficult area for all Thai governments from the middle of the 20th century onwards,” he said. “This is a chronic problem. The south always wants more autonomy. The government, whoever is in power in Bangkok, tends to be leery of giving that autonomy. I think in the long run the solution will probably have to be greater autonomy for the south, but in the current conditions, with people's emotions so raw, it is a very difficult time to start a negotiation that would have a reasonable probability of success.”

While violence has waxed and waned in the south, the Thai royal family has been active in the troubled region for decades. They are one of the most loved and respected monarchies on earth. In part, that reverence stems from its efforts to help the less fortunate throughout their country. Queen Sirikit has been especially committed to the southern province of Narathiwat, where she spends a month every year. This time she extended her stay and visited villagers and the royal palace career training centers.

In the village of Bukit Senor, Ruyiah Samateh sheers a lipao vine to create strong yet pliable strands used to make exquisite baskets that last for centuries. Mrs. Samateh and her family, like many Muslim villagers in southern Thailand, tap rubber and cultivate rice for a living. She has learned from the royal family how to create lipao baskets that she sells in Bangkok. She says the queen takes a strong interest in her work. “Each year the queen comes here and she has a competition for the best basket. Anyone who enters will earn more and the first price wins 35,000 Baht, enough money to buy land or build a house.”

A smiling Mrs. Samateh adds that she feels happy and safe when the queen is in the area. Her portrait is displayed throughout the province on buildings, in national parks and on university campuses -- often bedecked with lights and fresh flowers.

But is such economic and moral support from the royal family enough to bring peace to a region suffering from nearly a year of escalating bloodshed?

The Thai king recently advised Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to be more lenient in dealing with the south and involve local people in solving their problems. Karl Jackson of Johns Hopkins University says his words carry weight with everyone in Thailand, including the prime minister. “His majesty, King Bhumibol, is the most revered person in the country, and as a result, he has a substantial influence on all prime ministers of Thailand.”

However, the king has no political power under Thailand's constitutional monarchy. He rarely intercedes in government affairs and only does so when the country is facing a crisis.

Mr. Jackson says the king's appeal is not a matter of blind faith in royalty but a direct result of a lifetime of actions. “He has, in the course of his long reign, walked into literally every village in Thailand. The king has expressed his affection for his people in real terms. He has not been a king who has simply sat in a palace.”

Some analysts say it will be difficult to stop the latest wave of bloodshed. A flurry of revenge attacks against Buddhists have killed more than ten people in the last week, including railway workers and a Buddhist monk. On Friday, Prime Minster Thaksin said that separatists are intensifying violence in hopes of a brutal government response that would boost foreign support for their aims.