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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Thai PM supports Islamic law in restive south, rules out separation

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's army-installed premier visited the troubled Muslim-majority south, saying he supported the Islamic way of life but ruling out separation from the mainly Buddhist kingdom.

Surayud Chulanont flew to the capital of Yala province to meet students and teachers before visiting the biggest Islamic school in the region, telling young Muslims: "I will try and promote justice in the south."

At Rajabhat University in Yala town, the new prime minister urged students to live peacefully and help solve the problems in the south.

"The government will use today's information to adjust our policy and the approach by officials to use peaceful means, and encourage more participation from the local people," he told them.

But in a stark sign of the ongoing violence -- and the scale of the problem he faces -- two militants and a soldier were killed in a gunfight in the same province as Surayud's plane came in to land.

A bomb also exploded at an early morning fish market in neighbouring Pattani province. Police said no one was injured.

The premier, who was appointed after a bloodless September 19 coup, told foreign correspondents late Tuesday that the only condition for peace talks with insurgent leaders in the three restive southern provinces was that they drop any demands for independence.

"There is only one condition. No separation," he said, making it clear that a ceasefire was not a prerequisite for negotiations.

"That is the only condition we have ... we cannot accept separation of our land anywhere, this is the rule of the land, we are not going to be divided."

Surayud however added that granting a certain degree of autonomy could be discussed and stressed that he respected the Muslim way of life.

"They should have the Islamic law in practice, Sharia, because of the way they are dealing with normal practice in their life is completely different from us," he said.

The premier reiterated that resolving the insurgency in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces, where nearly 1,600 people have been killed in separatist violence and other unrest since January 2004, was a priority.

The Muslim-majority region bordering Malaysia was an independent sultanate annexed by mainly Buddhist Thailand in 1902. Separatist violence has erupted periodically ever since.

Surayud, a former army chief, said there was "minimal" outside involvement in the violence, which has been variously blamed on ethnic Malay separatists, Islamic extremists and criminal gangs.

It was Surayud's second trip to the three southern provinces.

His new government has vowed to resolve the conflict and hold peace talks with militants, a reversal of the hardline policy of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra which was blamed for the unrest escalating.

New confidence-building measures include re-establishing a mediation centre which Surayud visited Wednesday afternoon, and dropping charges against 58 Muslims arrested over a protest.

A judge confirmed Wednesday that the 58 people charged over the protest in the southern border town of Tak Bai on October 25, 2004 had been freed "to promote reconciliation."

Surayud, when asked if he would consider releasing other Muslims held on suspicion of being involved with militants, said: "We will take action on this urgently."

However, the near-daily killings show no sign of abating despite the government's moves towards peace.

"Decades of neglect and injustice followed, most recently, by five years of politically motivated, ill-conceived meddling and strongarm tactics cannot be ceased overnight," the premier said Tuesday night.

"But I firmly believe that with understanding, compassion and right actions, justice, peace and harmony can be achieved."

Interior Minister Aree Wongariya, who joined the delegation to the south, said the wish to create an independent Muslim state was a minority view.

"The violence has been happening over the past four to five years so it cannot be solved overnight," added Aree, himself a Muslim.

Five people -- two Buddhists and three Muslims -- were shot dead Tuesday in separate drive-by shootings by militants, three of them in Narathiwat province, one in Yala and one in Pattani.

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