Thai PM slips velvet glove on iron fist

Buddhists cry for help as Thaksin visits the volatile,
mostly Muslim region of southern Thailand.

As Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra visits the troubled southern region of Thailand, more than 100 Thai academics have called on him to apologize for the deaths of 78 Muslims who died in late October while in custody of the Thai army, reports BBC.

In an open letter, 144 academics from 18 universities said that the government's policy in the south had failed.

"We totally disagree with the policy of using force to solve the problem and we call for the government to change its policies," said the letter.

"We also agree the prime minister should consider his mistakes and express his responsibility.

"As the highest person in power, the prime minister cannot deny responsibility for the failure of the policies and the least the prime minister should do is apologize to the people, especially Muslims and relatives of the dead people."

Mr. Thaksin has so far refused to apologize for the deaths, notes BBC.

Thaksin expressed regret at the deaths and admitted that security forces had made mistakes when handling the protesters. He said that fasting for Ramadan played a role in the deaths, as CNN reports.
"There are some who died because they were fasting, and they were crammed in tight," Thaksin told reporters [on Oct. 26]. "It's a matter of their bodies becoming weak."

Thaksin has received criticism for implying that the detainees may have died from fasting. The Malaysian National News Agency or BERNAMA wrote:

Acting chairman of Mapan, the umbrella body for non-governmental organisations in Malaysia, Datuk Dr Ma'amor Osman said the statement by the Thai leader was rude and stupid as well as a disgrace to the Muslims who were now observing the fasting month of Ramadan.

Arab News reported that a spokesman for the Islamic Society of Thailand described Thaksin's claim as "outrageous," and asked for "an unreserved apology."

The deaths have sparked reprisal killings in southern provinces. Nearly two dozen people, most of them Buddhist, have died in revenge attacks. In some cases, the attackers left leaflets citing revenge for the deaths of detainees in October.

On Sunday, reports The Associated Press, "suspected Muslim insurgents gunned down a Buddhist shop owner." On Saturday, two men on a motorcycle fatally shot a 62-year-old Buddhist groundskeeper at a Buddhist shrine in Yala province. A Buddhist owner of a fruit farm in Narathiwat province was also shot and injured Saturday. AP reports that militants appear to be targeting traders, farmers, students and other Buddhists who are not associated with the government.

The violence has forced Thaksin to cancel his attendance at the November 20-21 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Chile.

Tensions between Muslims and Buddhists in southern Thailand have been simmering for decades, but have taken a turn for the worse this year. More than 400 people have been killed so far.

A Los Angeles Times editorial criticizes Thaksin for making "a potentially explosive situation much worse." The Times writes that "Thaksin's blindness could push moderate Muslims not yet demanding more autonomy or independence for the south toward radical action" and suggests that he "has to include the south in the nation's plans for economic development, getting more of the region's unemployed and undertrained young people into the workforce."

But many of Thailand's Buddhists, especially in the troubled south, feel that Thaksin should crack down even harder on rebellious Muslims, reports CNN.

"We are being treated like second-class citizens here," a Buddhist woman shouted at Thaksin during his visit to a Buddhist temple, reports Reuters. "We have been given false hopes by the government. I am urging you Mister Prime Minister to take drastic and decisive actions against those who have been behind the violence."

The Reuters piece ends this way:

Most of Thailand's six million Muslims live in the south and many feel alienated by the Buddhist administration in Bangkok and by Thaksin's confusing approach to handling the crisis, switching from tough talk one week to soothing words promising aid the next.


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