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Thailand Closes Public Schools in Southern Provinces - 2004-02-19

Hundreds of schools in Thailand's southern provinces have been closed as the region sees new violence. The prime minister has called an emergency security meeting to restore peace. For the second time in less than a month, nearly nine hundred public schools in Thailand's southern provinces have been closed following fresh threats against teachers and new attacks in the region.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra - who last week visited the south - has called an emergency security meeting in a bid to halt the violence. Government officials say the meeting will be in the south, but the date has not been set.

The predominately Muslim provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala have been hit by a wave of violence over the past six weeks. More than 40 people have died, most of them police officers and soldiers, but Buddhist monks and some Muslim officials also have been killed.

Government officials have blamed separatist groups for the attacks, saying they have links with "radical groups" in Asia and the Middle East. However, some investigators also say the attacks could be the work local bandits.

Education officials closed the schools Thursday after leaflets threatening attacks were found. Officials Thursday also reported that three more people were killed in overnight violence.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, with the Institute of Security and International Studies in Thailand, says a climate of fear led to the closure of the schools. "For the time being schools are closing just for the precaution," he says. "Rumors are still flying around, making people more worried about going out from their home."

Tensions in the region began to rise on January fourth, when raiders stole nearly four hundred guns from a military depot. At least 20 schools in the area were set on fire at the same time. The police have yet to arrest anyone for those attacks.

Southern Thailand saw a separatist insurgency during the 1970's and 1980s', but security measures accompanied by amnesties and political reforms restored calm.

Mr. Thaksin's government has increased the number of police and soldiers in the area, and has promised greater economic development in the south - one of the country's poorer regions. The prime minister has also met with local Islamic leaders.

Mr. Panitan, with the Institute of Security and International Studies, says the region has yet to be stabilized. "The various groups in the local area - especially in Pattani and Narathiwat are still quite active in terms of starting new incidents particularly killing innocent people and police officers," he says.

Mr. Panitan says the government wants more cooperation among the police, the army and the civilian community, but so far it has not materialized. He said the government is looking to quickly isolate the ringleaders of the violence. But Mr. Panitan warns that first coordination among security forces must be improved, so they can effectively implement government policies and security measures in the region.