Thai PM sticks to guns for peace in Muslim south

By Ed Cropley BANGKOK, Reuters

Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said on Tuesday he would not bow to pressure from his country’s Buddhist majority to reverse a softly-softly approach to resolving a bloody insurgency in the Muslim-majority south.

“We are not going to use violence to counter violence,” said Surayud, appointed after a Sept. 19 coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who favored an iron fist against the three-year rebellion in which more than 2,000 people have died.

“We are not going to use the heavy-handed methods like in the past. We are going to follow the rule of law,” Surayud, a former army commander-in-chief, told Reuters in an interview.

Marking a distinct break with his predecessor, within days of taking office Surayud apologized for abuses by security forces in the three southernmost provinces, where 80 percent of people are Muslim ethnic Malays and do not speak Thai as a first language.

However, his push for dialogue and greater official recognition of Malay culture and language has set him on a collision course with many in Thailand’s overwhelmingly Buddhist majority who reject any form of compromise.

Incidents such as last week’s ambush of a minibus in which eight Buddhist civilians were killed has only increased pressure for another crackdown and revenge.

“Anything seen as appeasement would be politically suicidal for Thai leaders dependent for support on voters outside the south, most of whom had no problems with Thaksin’s get-tough approach,” the Brussels based International Crisis Group said in a report last week.

Surayud acknowledged that daily violence in the provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani — all of them an independent sultanate until annexed by Bangkok a century ago — had intensified since he came to power.

However, he rejected the notion that a rise in mainly Buddhist self-defense militias, some of which have backing from Thailand’s revered Queen Sirikit, could lead to out-and-out ethnic civil war.

“They’re not strong enough to create an internal war or anything that compares to the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Surayud said. “There’s no way.”

Surayud has also patched up relations with southern neighbor Malaysia, enlisting Kuala Lumpur’s help in opening up some sort of dialogue with the rebels, who have never made themselves or their aims public.

He conceded that no talks were taking place, but said the unrest remained the top priority during the remainder of his year-long administration, which is expected to be replaced by an elected government late this year or early next year.

“For the rest of my time, I am trying to reduce the violence in the south. That is my main task,” he said.