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Thailand's Cabinet Discusses $560 Million Development Package for Muslim Areas - 2004-03-16

Thailand's cabinet met Tuesday in the country's troubled southern Muslim provinces to discuss a multimillion dollar development package and to talk with area leaders. The meeting and talks are part of the government's strategy to end violence in the region.

The cabinet meeting, which is usually held in Bangkok, took place in Pattani province, one of three mostly-Muslim provinces in southern Thailand. The provinces, which include Narathiwat and Yala, have seen more than 50 people killed in a series of attacks since early January. The victims include Buddhist monks, police officers, soldiers and Muslim teachers.

The Thai National Security Council told the cabinet members Tuesday that the unrest is caused by a combination of Islamic militancy, crime and corruption.

The government has struggled to bring the situation under control by imposing martial law but has faced criticism from local Muslim leaders for being heavy handed and insensitive to the Muslim culture. Thailand's population is predominately Buddhist.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinwatra, angry at the lack of progress in ending the violence, recently replaced his defense and interior ministers in a cabinet reshuffle.

Tuesday, the cabinet discussed a new development program for the south, worth more than $560 million, aimed at creating jobs and improving access to schools and hospitals.

Phaisan Poryib, a member of the Islamic Private Schools Association, says education and economic development are key elements of the spending program and the government appears to be heading in the right direction.

"I think the government come the right way now," he said. "We can see in the future what development [there will be] of the economy of the southern border of Thailand."

Mr. Phaisan also calls for increased efforts to promote the region as a safe tourist destination for foreign visitors.

But other academics remain skeptical of the government's plan, arguing that money is not the best solution the region's problems. Instead, they say, more attention should be paid to cultural differences and greater understanding of the south from all Thais.