Money won't stop south Thai violence, Muslims say
(Adds suspected militants killed)
By Martin Petty
BAN TALUBOH, Thailand, June 18 (Reuters) - In the rustic villages of Thailand's Muslim south, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's promise of large-scale development aid to tackle a brutal insurgency sounds all too familiar.
"Money can't change what's happening, no one can buy an end to the problems here," said Yousuf, referring to a shadowy five-year rebellion that has claimed nearly 3,500 lives in the southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.
"It's the policies of Thai governments that are to blame," he said in a village tea shop in Pattani. "They have to understand that our way of life is different to other Thais and money won't make a difference".
Other villagers gave similar views on Abhisit's three-year plan to win "hearts and minds" by pouring 54 billion baht ($1.58 billion) into the region bordering Malaysia. [ID:nBKK414765]
They are ethnic Malay Muslims who speak Thai as a second language, and dismiss the plan to boost fisheries, rubber and palm oil industries as another example of Buddhist Bangkok's failure to understand a region more than 1,000 kms away.
"Corrupt officials will keep the money for themselves. This is a useless idea," Arware said. "It could end up in the hands of the militant groups. Investment won't stop the violence."
Bearmah, a burly Muslim with teeth stained by sickly-sweet tea, said a better idea would be to withdraw the 30,000 soldiers deployed in the region and scrap an emergency decree that grants them broad powers of arrest with immunity from prosecution.
"The rebels are fighting the military. We don't need them here because we can protect ourselves," he said, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.
"The emergency laws let them arrest innocent people, jail them for a month, and sometimes they torture them -- how can this win hearts and minds?," he said.
The three provinces were part of an independent Malay Muslim sultanate annexed by Buddhist Thailand a century ago, and its people have long resisted Bangkok's attempts to assimilate them.
A separatist insurgency from the 1970s and 1980s resurfaced in 2004, and attempts by successive Thai governments to quell the unrest with military force, investment and even free cable television have all failed.
The violence has intensified in the last two weeks, with Buddhists and Muslims among the 31 people killed and more than 50 wounded in the all too familiar gun and bomb attacks, for which no credible group has claimed responsibility.
Four suspected Muslim militants were killed on Thursday during a raid by army rangers and police in Yala's Bannang Sta district, police said. "We got four of them," a police official told Reuters after the 30-minute gunbattle. He said they had received a tip that militants were using the house as a hideout.
The unrest has heaped more pressure on Abhisit's coalition government as it struggles to revive an economy hit by a global downturn and protracted political strife since a 2006 coup removed ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Villages like Ban Taluboh have been traditional strongholds of Abhisit's Democrat Party. But few here believe his government, or any other, is capable of ending the violence.
"Each government is the same," said Abdulloh, a villager. "They have never listened to the people. Our culture is a Malay culture and we follow the rules of Islam."
Bearmah said the failure to arrest the gunmen who shot dead 10 Muslims at prayer in a Narathiwat mosque on June 8 had intensified peoples' feelings of injustice and resentment.
"If they really want to end this violence, they have to arrest these killers," he said, rejecting Bangkok's denials that security forces were involved in the mosque attack.
"I suspect the authorities are behind it, because no one has been arrested," he said. "Muslims don't kill other Muslims praying in a mosque." (Additional reporting by Kittipong Soonprasert) (Editing by Darren Schuettler)
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