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Violence Continues in Southern Thailand - 2004-03-19

Violence in Thailand's southern provinces is continuing, with arson attacks on 30 buildings on Thursday night. The violence continues, despite stepped up security and government promises of financial assistance.

The arson attacks late Thursday hit 30 state-run rural health clinics and police booths in Thailand's mostly Muslim southern provinces bordering Malaysia.

No injuries were reported in the attacks, but since the start of the year, the death toll from the unrest has reached nearly 50 people. In January, Thailand declared martial law in three southern provinces after 20 schools were burned down and a military depot was attacked.

Some officials believe Thursday's arson attacks are connected to the disappearance last week of a popular Muslim lawyer, Somchai Neelahphaijit.

Mr. Somchai is currently defending several men allegedly linked to the regional Islamic terrorist organization, Jemaah Islamiyah.

The Thai government is blaming the troubles on a combination of Islamic militants, drugs, and arms smuggling criminals and political opponents. While Thailand's population is 90-percent Buddhist, Islam is the dominant religion in some southern provinces.

Thepchai Yong, group editor of The Nation newspaper, says those responsible are convincing people to join their ranks.

"… [whoever] was responsible has been very successful in setting up networks of recruits who are now operating almost unpunished," he said. "I think what they want to demonstrate is that they now have recruits working for them on a wider scale than before."

The Thai government is under considerable pressure over its failure to deal with the violence and Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has reorganized his cabinet and the military leadership in the south.

The government is also hoping that a nearly half-billion-dollar assistance package approved this week will help.

But Mr. Thepchai says assistance is only part of the answer.

"I think the most immediate problem is how to get all the government agencies to work together - I think the rivalry among these various agencies has been a major cause of the problems in the south," he said.

Local community leaders have called on the government to lift martial law, but Prime Minister Thaksin is urging local communities to give the government more information to help it investigate the attacks.