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Thai Muslim Leaders Criticize Removal of Three Generals

Thailand's military commander says three generals held responsible for the deaths of 85 Muslims in Southern Thailand last year will be removed from their commands. But Muslim leaders are criticizing their punishment too light.

The president of Thailand's Council of Muslim Organizations, Nitti Hasan, Tuesday called the removal of three army generals from their commands too lenient.

"I'm not sure that this action is appropriate enough for the 78 detainees who died in this incident," he said.

Seventy eight men died last October in southern Thailand after being crammed into trucks on their way to detention centers. They were among hundreds arrested following a demonstration against the arrest of several local militiamen. Seven others were shot to death during the protest, which occurred in Tak Bai district near the border with Malaysia.

Thai army chief Pravit Wongsuwan announced the transfer of the three generals to inactive posts after a Defense Ministry inquiry found they had been negligent in the incident. He said the generals would not face further disciplinary action, since their loss of command is seen as severe enough.

Civic leaders such as Gothom Areeya, secretary-general of the civil liberties group Forum Asia, also believe the punishment was too light.

"In a normal case where maybe by negligence or maybe by bad judgment resulting in the death of people, this can be considered as a criminal case, or this can be considered as a very serious disciplinary issue," he said.

More than 600 people have been killed since the violence erupted more than one year ago in southern Thailand. Authorities blame many of the deaths on extremists seeking independence for the predominantly Muslim south.

Mr. Gothom says the government is in a dilemma.

"They don't want to make a big fuss, fearful of the discontent of the armed forces," he said. "On the other hand, we have to take care of the sentiment of the many Thai people who are Muslim."

The violence in the South continued Monday, when three local officials were shot to death in separate incidents.

Hundreds of people have been arrested on suspicion of ties to the separatists. Muslim leaders say the crackdown has created an atmosphere of fear. Muslim leader Mr. Nitti says the government must be fair.

"The people need justice," he said. "They need good understanding, they need respect to the [for their] rights and respect to the different culture."

The Thai government has promised to create jobs and improve social services in the South. But this has done little to quell resentment in the region, which historically has felt alienated from the central government of predominantly Buddhist Thailand.