Thailand seeks help to quell insurgency

A Buddhist ice cream vendor is shot three times and beheaded, his corpse left on his cart. Two Muslim rubber plantation workers are killed in separate drive-by shootings. Gunmen fire on a vanload of teachers en route to schools. Roadside bombs injure passing soldiers.

Such incidents are typical of the daily violence that has claimed more than 2,000 lives in the past three years in Thailand’s Muslim-majority southern border provinces, where ethnic Malay Islamist insurgents are waging a brutal campaign against the state and those they see as its collaborators.

The insurgency was cited by the Thai military as one of the justifications for the coup last year that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra, the policeman turned tycoon turned prime minister whose strong-arm tactics were blamed for exacerbating tensions and further alienating an already disgruntled ethnic and religious minority.

The military-installed government has made little headway against the separatists. Rebels appear able to strike at will. They are successful at getting locals to boycott state services such as schools and hospitals and government employment.

But Thai authorities are now pinning their hopes on improved relations and enhanced intelligence co-operation with neighbouring Malaysia – a renewal of ties affirmed by the expected arrival in Thailand on Sunday of Abdullah Badawai, Malaysia’s prime minister.

The two countries share a long, porous border, which the rebels cross freely in search of refuge or funds. As a result, Malaysian assistance in the battle against insurgents is seen as essential. Kuala Lumpur is also said to be concerned about the implications of the increased radicalisation.

“We share a destiny for peace,” Nitaya Pibulsonggram, Thailand’s foreign minister, said recently. “Without it we won’t be able to live as good neighbours.”

Along with co-operating on intelligence and arrests, Malaysia could use its influence, some say, to encourage separatists and Thailand’s Malay Muslims to reconcile with the Thai state.

“There is a need to press ... the Malaysian government to be more forceful and call for all sections of Muslims in the south [of Thailand] to give peace a chance and support the peace process,” says Anwar Ibrahim, the former Malaysian deputy prime minister.

Bangkok’s relationship with Kuala Lumpur was severely strained during Mr Thaksin’s tenure, with many Malaysians appalled by Thai human rights abuses. Among those were the 2004 suffocation of 78 Muslim protesters in the back of army trucks and the alleged extra-judicial killing of a prominent suspected insurgent whom Malaysia delivered to Thai custody.

As Kuala Lumpur cooled towards Bangkok, Mr Thaksin accused Malaysia of harbouring separatist insurgents and training camps.

Thailand’s new rulers have been more conciliatory to both Kuala Lumpur and the ethnic Malays in the south. Soon after taking office, Gen Surayud Chulanont, the military-installed prime minister, also publicly apologised to southern Muslims for past abuses.

For all the rhetoric, the relationship between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur will hinge on how conditions in the south evolve, says Sunai Phasuk, of Human Rights Watch. “Malaysia is willing to co-operate, but Thailand has to address their concerns, which is that the mistreatment of Malay Muslims must stop, and justice must be delivered.”

For Thailand, the stakes are high. Authorities are investigating whether New Year’s Eve bombings that killed three and injured 40 in Bangkok were the handiwork of a suspect wanted for past bombing in the south, raising the spectre that the conflict could spread beyond the little-visited deep south.

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