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Thai PM Orders Further Probe into Fate of Missing Human Rights Lawyer

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has set a deadline of this week for investigators to solve the case of a respected Muslim human rights lawyer feared kidnapped just over two weeks ago. Analysts fear the lawyer's disappearance and a Saturday night bomb attack indicate the simmering tensions in Thailand's largely Muslim southern provinces are far from over.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra used his weekly radio address to press investigators to solve the case of the missing Muslim human rights lawyer, who has previously accused state security officials of brutality.

The disappearance of Somchai Neelaphaijit has further complicated Mr. Thaksin's efforts to end nearly three months of violence and conflict in the mostly Muslim-populated southern provinces.

Mr. Somchai, the chairman of the Muslim Law Professionals' Association, disappeared in Bangkok March 12. His car was later found abandoned.

Mr. Somchai has represented clients in several high profile Muslim human rights cases over the years, including several men arrested last year and accused of links with the regional terror network, Jemaah Islamiyah.

The men were accused of planning to carry out attacks on Western embassies in Bangkok.

More recently, he took the case of five men accused of links to the January 4 attack on an army depot in southern Thailand. The attack marked the start of the latest violence in the southern border regions that has left more than 50 people dead. The government has blamed the violence on a combination of criminals, Islamic separatists and conflicts among local politicians and within state authorities.

Colleague and fellow Law Society member Somchai Homla-or says Mr. Somchai Neelaphaijit has been dedicated to protecting the Muslim community and fighting alleged discrimination by Thai government agencies.

"He always defends the cases of human rights violations, including the case that the accused are tortured, especially the cases in the South, that the policemen in many cases use the brutality, use the abuse of power in making the investigation of the crime," he said. Colleagues of Somchai Neelaphaijit fear for his safety. They fear he may have become a target for kidnapping after a speech in late February, in which he accused southern security authorities of using torture, including electric shock and beatings, to gain confessions.

The southern provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani are home to most of Thailand's six million Muslims. The region has been under martial law since the January 4 attack. The law grants police wide powers of arrest and interrogation. Thai Muslim political leaders have called for martial law powers to be lifted.

Mr. Somchai Homla-or says he fears, if his colleague has been murdered, it could trigger fresh violence in the south.

"We are really concerned that, when he disappear, and there are many indications he might be abducted [by] the security offices of the government, [that] it will stimulate more and more disturbance or violence in the south," said Mr. Somchai Homla-or.

Thai government officials deny targeting Muslims in the security campaign in the south, and Thailand's prime minister has promised millions of dollars in aid and development programs to the region.

But violence continues. A bomb blast late Saturday outside a bar in Narathiwat province left some 30 people injured, including Malaysian tourists, raising fears the government is still far from fully re-establishing security.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, from Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Security and International Studies, says people are fearful.

"As a whole, people are beginning to be more and more worried about the potential crisis in the south," he said. "Overall, people still very much believe that the situation could be brought under control by this government. [But] people are now beginning to at least lose some confidence in certain key officers in dealing with this problem."

Mr. Panitan says the crisis is proving to be a real test for the government, in terms of its unity, efficiency and overall political support.

"The matter is still far from resolved," he continued. [There is] still a lot of conflicts within agencies working on the Southern problem, there are also conflicts within [the prime minister's] Thai Rak Thai [Party] itself. It will be quite some time for the government to bring things under control."

Political analysts say Prime Minister Thaksin is focused on trying to end the violence and uncertainty gripping the South. They say, with elections due in early 2005, the issue could become critical for his government.