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Does Thailand Face Threat of Guerrilla Terror Attacks? - 2002-03-21

A spate of recent attacks in Thailand's southern Muslim provinces is raising fears of a return of terrorist guerilla attacks. But opinions are divided on whether Thailand faces the threat of terror attacks or whether banditry or feuding among officials is responsible for the violence.

An escalation in violence in the southern Thai province of Pattani including the killing of seven Thai policemen - five shot in one day earlier this month - has left a death toll of 11 and sparked fears southern Thai Muslim terrorists were once again active.

Thai security forces, backed by navy helicopters, killed four Muslim men in a battle last Saturday. The gunmen were suspected of belonging to a group of terrorists involved in a spate of shootings and bombings, including an explosion in a parked tour bus outside a hotel in the southern tourist town of Hat Yai.

Officially, the Thai Interior Minister, Purachai Piumsombun has blamed state officials for the bloodshed. Mr. Purchai has also denied local media reports a specific terrorist gang was active.

But fears have remained in the current international climate that Thai Muslim terrorists were again active.

The south is home to Thailand's 3.1 million Muslims who account for about five per cent of the country's 62 million largely Buddhist population.

The southern provinces were the center of communist guerilla activity in the 1970s and 80s, but the bloodshed stopped after a long series of negotiations. Muslim separatism from Thailand has been an issue for almost 100 years dating back to King Chulalongkorn's reign in the late nineteenth century.

Up until the mid-1980s, the separatist fighting had been led by the Pattani United Liberation Organization - or PULO. The armed guerrilla group, which counted 20,000 armed men at its peak, was disbanded, but new groups have emerged in recent years calling themselves the New PULO.

Retired General Kitti Ratanachaya spent much of the 34 years of his military career overseeing the southern provinces as the regional commander. He was deeply involved in the peace talks with both Thai and Malaysian communists. He fears the recent attacks are linked to Muslim terrorism, not banditry.

"In my view Muslim terrorists play their role down south now. Muslim terrorists - I mean Mujahedin - work down south. What happen down south is Muslim terrorists," he said.

General Kitti says some of the Thai Muslim guerillas who were responsible for a series of bombings in the early 1990s, had been trained in Syria, Malaysia and the Middle East, and had even gone to Afghanistan during the period of Soviet occupation.

But Muslim academic and advisor to the Thai National Security Council, Peerayot Rahimmula, says times have changed. Mr. Peerayot, who is head of the Center for Southern Studies at Songkhla University, says the recent attacks in early March were local conflicts, even within the local police, over illegal business dealings.

"When seven policemen were killed they suspect that it was by the Mujahedin guerillas. In fact it was not from the guerilla at all," he said. "As far as I know this was a conflict among the officer themselves, among the police and the military in the area, they were conflict on the illegal business, like the drug, prostitution, gambling, weaponry."

Mr. Peerayot believes the shootings and bombings are likely carried out by corrupt officials who, cornered in the government crackdown on graft, strike out to settle scores. He says the concept of Thai Muslim terrorists now no longer applies.

"In fact I think the guerilla or underground movement is finished in this area. Just ordinary bandits, not any guerilla at all," Mr. Peerayot said.

Mr. Peerayot says the Thai people are better educated today than they were a decade or two ago and have legitimate avenues - such as turning to elected parliamentary representatives - to express their grievances. They do not have to resort to underground terrorist tactics.