Thailand is sending more troops into its troubled southern provinces and providing additional security for local Buddhist clergy following several killings in the past week. Officials fear the killings may be aimed at triggering inter-religious violence.
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced the deployment of more troops to the region after nine people, including three Buddhist monks, were killed. The monks were hacked to death by masked men while making their daily begging rounds.
Sectarian violence in Thailand is extremely rare, and Bangkok-based diplomats have described the development as shocking.
Mr. Thaksin said the government would not rest until the culprits were caught. He said the attacks on the monks were undertaken by people hoping to create conflict between Buddhists and Muslims.
Most of Thailand's 60 million people are Buddhists. The majority of the country's six million Muslims live in the southern provinces, which border predominately-Muslim Malaysia. Tensions in the South were already high after an attack on a Thai military depot on January 4 that left four soldiers dead. The attackers made off with up to 300 weapons, including automatic rifles, and more than 15 schools were set on fire that day.
The government blamed both local bandits and Islamic separatists for the attacks, and launched a massive security operation in the region. A curfew was imposed on several provinces, widespread searches of homes were carried out, and dozens of Muslims, including clergymen, were detained.
But no formal arrests have been made in the January 4 attacks despite the crackdown.
The southern provinces were the scene of Muslim separatist violence during the 1970s and 1980s. Government compromises combined with amnesties and negotiation led to most groups laying down their arms.
Interior Ministry spokesman Somchai Petprasert blames the latest violence on terrorists. "I still believe terrorists [are behind the violence], a big group who support these terrorists to fight with the government this time," he said.
But regional analyst Carl Thayer of the Australian Defense Force Academy said there are indications that criminal remnants of the Islamic groups are also involved.
"It strikes me the picture comes to be a crossover between regional secessionism and criminal activity coming together against the Thai Government to strike back at grievances," he said.
Meanwhile, officials in the South are bracing for further possible attacks.