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Thai Army Stymied in South, Seeks New Approach

Thailand's armed forces, grappling for almost two years with an insurgency in the southern provinces, are looking for fresh avenues to peace, including talks, in a bid to end the bloodshed. But, rebuilding trust among Thai Muslims in the south remains a challenge.

Seeking an end to the violence in Thailand's southern provinces, army chief General Sondhi Boonyaratglin recently called for talks with Muslim insurgent leaders.

General Sondhi's call followed a coordinated bomb attack during the lunch hour rush on 22 banks in Yala that left one man dead and more than two dozen wounded.

An almost daily toll of violence since early 2004 has continued despite the presence of up to 20,000 troops in the three provinces. The bloodshed has left more than 1,500 people dead.

Lieutenant General Vaipot Srinual, a member of the Armed Forces Security Center within the army's Supreme Command Headquarters, says all avenues to establish peace need to be explored.

"To resolve the problem in the southern part of Thailand we cannot rely on only one or two solutions," he said. "We need a package of solutions and whatever General Sondhi suggest[ed] is one of the good ways."

Political analysts say the call for talks could be an important step toward bringing calm to the provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.

One insurgent group, the Pattani United Liberation Organization, or PULO, has welcomed the idea. Pulo is one of several insurgent groups in an umbrella organization called Bersatu. Intelligence officials recently told VOA that another group within Bersatu, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Pattani Coordinate, is responsible for much of the violence.

The southern provinces are home to most of Thailand's Muslim population. The bulk of the country's people are Buddhists and the Muslims in the south have long complained of discrimination and neglect by the central government.

The precise agenda of the militants in the south has always been unclear. Doubts persist over the strength of links between the leadership, often in exile overseas, and the fighters on the ground.

Chulalongkorn University political scientist Panitan Wattanayagorn says security force officials already are trying to open channels of communication with insurgent leaders.

"There have been some activities relating to the negotiation among certain public and security officers and some of the leaders of the groups that are active in causing trouble in the south," he said. "The army chief admitted that there should be a new round of negotiations between security officers and leaders of the movement like Bersatu."

The military's call for talks, however, conflicts directly with the Thai government's position. The government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has so far refused to talk with the insurgents. And the government spokesman has downplayed expectations of any early move to talks, saying that the government, not the military, sets the ground rules on how to solve the southern problem.

For months before the generals called for talks, their forces have been trying to reduce the violence by rebuilding the military's relationship with communities in the south.

Human rights groups say military excesses in 2004 made people in the south distrustful of the armed forces and unwilling to cooperate with them.

In April 2004, security forces killed 112 lightly armed insurgents, mostly teenagers, who had attacked police stations and checkpoints.

The dead included 32 men who had fled to the 425-year-old Krue Sae mosque for sanctuary. The military attacked the mosque, killing all inside.

Another incident, which still angers many southern Thais, occurred on August 25, 2004, in the Narathiwat town of Tak Bai. Seventy-eight men died when they were rounded up and stacked into overcrowded trucks after soldiers broke up a public gathering that they feared was turning into a riot.

Allegations of extrajudicial killings and the placing of people on security blacklists for no clear reason have also spawned fear within the Muslim community. The region also is under martial law, which gives the military the right to conduct searches for no reason, impose curfews and limit travel.

Sunai Pasuk, a Bangkok representative for the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, says greater equality between Muslim and Buddhist communities in the south is needed to help rebuild community confidence.

"All the Thai authorities must act on an equal basis - treat all the victims of violence equally, so if a Muslim claims that their family members have been executed or disappeared there needs to be an investigation immediately - not like it is now - after three or four years," said Sunai.

The army is trying to reach Muslim communities through special programs, such as employment projects for village women. The army also provided funds for community buildings and has backed projects to help rubber farmers.

But Sunai says such programs are not enough - they must be accompanied by the restoration of legal rights.

"Above all job creation needs to be done hand in hand with confidence building through the provision of justice, the provision of fairness, equality under the law - this needs to be happening at the same time," said Sunai.

Sunai adds that, for the government to succeed in "winning the hearts and minds" of Muslims in the south, the security forces need be seen as a protector and guarantor of safety and justice in their communities.