Thai Premier Says Muslim-Buddhist Rift Must Be Healed in South

By The Associated Press, March 21, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand -- Mounting tensions between Muslims and Buddhists in Thailand's restive south must be healed to avoid an outbreak of greater violence between the two groups, the prime minister said Wednesday.

<< Thailand's Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont

Surayud Chulanont made the comments during a visit to Pattani province, his fifth trip to the far south since being installed as prime minister by the military after a September coup.

The violence continued unabated on Wednesday, with suspected insurgents fatally shooting one soldier and wounding two others in nearby Narathiwat province, police said.

"Local officials have expressed concern that recent incidents could cause a rift between communities," Surayud said after meeting with senior security officials. "We will have to find the cause of these misunderstandings and fix them."

Violence in Thailand's three Muslim-majority provinces—Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat—has claimed more than 2,000 lives since the insurgency flared in 2004.

A recent string of brutal attacks targeting civilians has triggered fears of open combat between the Muslim and Buddhist communities in the region.

A weekend attack on an Islamic boarding school in Songkhla province, which is next to Pattani, killed three boy students and injured eight others.

Last week, suspected Muslim militants ambushed a commuter van carrying Buddhists in Yala province and killed eight of them execution-style, including two teenage girls on their way to school.

"We have to be on alert and continue the effort to build understanding and cooperation, starting with community and religious leaders as well as local officials," Surayud said. "Next, we will have to look into relationships among civilians."

When Surayud took office he pledged to make peace in the south a priority and to moderate the previous government's iron-fisted policies. Ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who tried to solve the crisis by force, was accused of inflaming the violence.

Surayud responded to a Human Rights Watch report issued Tuesday that accused Thai authorities of using forced disappearances to intimidate suspected Muslim insurgents. The report said most of the 22 cases it detailed had occurred under Thaksin's government, and that Surayud's administration had done little to rectify the problem.

"There hasn't been any case of a forced disappearance during this administration," Surayud said. "However, there are unresolved cases from the previous government that are under investigation. Some cases are now in court."