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Thai Military Says It Makes Progress in Ending Insurgent Violence in South

The military commander overseeing Thailand's largely Muslim southern provinces says security is improving as the army steps up efforts to "win hearts and minds" and end insurgent attacks. But as political analysts say the drop in violence may be temporary.

Lieutenant General Pichet Wisaijorn says the violence has fallen significantly in four provinces that have seen the most bloodshed over the past five years.

Since 2004, more than 3,500 people have died in an Islamic insurgency in the provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani and Songkhla. While Thailand's population is predominately Buddhist, the residents of those provinces are mostly ethnic Malay Muslims.

Pichet says improved security operations and intelligence gathering have eased tension in communities that once feared night-time attacks.

In a recent interview with reporters at the Sirindhorn Army camp in Pattani, Pichet said that people live more openly than in the past.

People, he says, would go home by seven o'clock at night but now feel secure enough to stay out later in the evening. Children also are less suspicious and more welcoming to the military. He says regional festivals are again becoming popular.

The military's strategy in the southern border provinces, Pichet says, is based on "winning the hearts and minds" of residents.

The Thai government is pressing for political solutions instead of military action to curb the insurgency.

Pichet blames a lack of trust between the armed forces and local communities for the problems but says the military now is in regular dialogue with local people.

And the general discounts views the insurgents are linked with international terror groups such as al Qaida or the Southeast Asian group Jemaah Islamiyah.

But there are doubts about the current policy.

Professor Surachart Bamrungsuk, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, says it is not certain the policy will contain the violence for long.

"When we talk about the situation in the south, I think it looks like a curve. It goes up and down," said Surachart. "In a certain period it looks better but in a certain period it's getting worse. At this time everything seems to be a little better than what we have seen last year - [but] when we have seen this kind of situation how long will it stay with us?"

The army has faced criticism over rights abuses in the south. Groups such as Human Rights Watch want the government to take action against army abuses and discrimination against southern Muslims.

Human Rights Watch says anger within the ethnic Malay community has been fueled by laws giving the army wide powers and blanket immunity for misconduct and human rights violations.

This week the government approved creating a new body to oversee development projects in the south, which the prime minister's office will control. The move marks a shift from military control over development efforts.