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Experts alert for shift in Thai Muslim insurgency

Written by: Staff

BANGKOK, Nov 22 (Reuters) Thailand's army-backed cabinet meets in special session tomorrow to discuss Muslim unrest in the far south, a deadly but localised conflict security analysts fear might one day ''go global''.

Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a former army chief, and his cabinet are scheduled to review the government's new peace offensive to address the largely Malay-speaking Muslim south.

Surayud has already made three trips to the region since his appointment after a Sept. 19 military coup ousted Thaksin Shinawatra, apologising for his predecessor's hardline treatment of the region.

''We are not fighting in a war. I am a soldier, but I never like wars,'' Surayud told reporters yesterday.

The immediate response has been a surge in drive-by shootings and other small-scale attacks, hallmarks of a conflict in which more than 1,800 people -- Muslims and Buddhists -- have been killed over the past three years.

So far, there are no indications that the ''dirty war'' that has drawn in militants, security forces, drug-dealers and smugglers, poses a significant regional threat. Many in far-away Bangkok appear indifferent.

Critical mass, analysts say, would require a major shift in tactics on the part of the militants, most likely accompanied by operational links with outside groups like Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiah. There is little evidence of either.

''There has not been any outside, transnational taint to this so far,'' said one Bangkok-based security analyst, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

''But if it continues to fester as it has, I cannot imagine we won't have some outside interference,'' he said.

(WARNING SIGNS) Analysts who track the unrest in the Muslim south of a predominantly Buddhist country say they are on the lookout for any major change in tactics that could signal a new, more deadly turn in the insurgency. These include: -- Targeting Thailand's vital tourist industry with an attack on a major resort, nightclub or hotel. Said one expert: ''If they decide to really up the ante, that's the number one way.'' -- Launching suicide bombing attacks, a technique so far unknown among Thailand's Muslim militants.

-- Hitting Western targets, such as foreign banks, corporate offices or diplomatic missions.

None of these thresholds has been crossed, but recent statistics suggest the violence has become more indiscriminate. Victims now routinely include women and children, and multiple killings of civilians are common.

Thai officials, suspected Muslim collaborators and Buddhist workers and other immigrants to the region have all been murdered.

Arrests are rare.

''The concept is to promote chaos,'' said Brian Dougherty of Hill Risk Consulting, noting the tactics appear to be having the desired effect.

''It's separatism, pure and simple, separatism with a machete,'' he said. ''It's just a matter of time, and time is on their side.'' This lack of a coherent programme, beyond perhaps sowing general chaos, complicates efforts to address grievances that date back to Thailand's annexation of what was an Islamic sultanate a century ago.

For Surayud's peace drive to succeed, he must first identify leaders with the authority to make deals with the central state and the power to rein in the armed militants.

Defence Minister Boonrawd Somtas told reporters yesterday that talks brokered by neighbouring Malaysia, in which Thai officials met Muslim insurgent leaders, had not yielded results because they were not involved in the insurgency.

''Those we have talked to are not the main players causing the trouble. We haven't been able to reach them yet -- the Fourth Region Army and other agencies are working on it now,'' he said.


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