Thailand keeps majority-Muslim deep South under martial law

(dpa) - Thailand will extend martial law in the majority-Muslim deep South until July 18, Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej said Friday.

Thailand's three southernmost provinces, Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, have been under martial law since October, 2004, allowing the military to arrest suspected separatists without warrants, detain them without charges for 30 days, and face no culpability for making false arrests.

The provinces were placed under martial law in a bid to combat a bloody separatist struggle in the region that has claimed up to 3,000 lives since January, 2004, when Muslim militants raided an army depot and stole 300 rifles.

Thailand's armed forces have welcomed the news that martial law has been continued in the region, noting that their intelligence campaign would be undermined if martial law was lifted.

"We will have a lot of problems detaining suspects if there is no martial law," said Colonel Acra Tiproch, spokesman for 4th Army Region that commands the southern region. "Most of our intelligence comes from arrested suspects. Without marital law it would take us too long to make arrests."

Although some question the effectiveness of martial law, which has failed to stop the violence in the three southern provinces over the past four years, Thai military officers claim their special powers to arrest suspects have helped them to understand how the insurgency works in the area.

The Thai military has identified the main separatist organization operating in the deep South as the BRN Co-Ordinate group, a loose organization bent on creating a separate Islamic Pattani State.

The military claims that BRN Co-ordinate has set up a "hidden government" in hundreds of the villages in the three provinces.

"The insurgents have created a duplicate provincial administration, starting at the village level where the BRN Co-ordinate appoints their own village head, called an Ayaor, or father," said Major General Sumrej Srirai, deputy commander of the 4th Army region.

"We only know about this hidden administration because we have arrested some of its members," Sumrej told a recent press briefing.

As with other anti-insurgency campaigns, Thailand's efforts to crush the separatists have been undermined by the movement's strong support from the local population.

Nearly 80 per cent of the 1.8 million people living in the three provinces are Muslim, making the region an anomaly in majority-Buddhist Thailand.

There is a widespread sentiment among southerners that Bangkok-based governments have tried to suppress the region's cultural and societal differences while ignoring its economic development and the enforcement of justice.

"In the long run we can only win the struggle through peaceful means," said Acra. "We need to make the people like us, believe in us and help us end the violence," he added.

Thailand's three southernmost provinces, bordering Malaysia, comprised the independent Islamic sultanate of Pattani more than 200 years ago before it fell under Bangkok's rule.

A separatist struggle has flared on and off in the area for decades, but took a turn for the worse in January, 2004, when Muslim militants, inspired by rising Muslim militancy abroad, attacked an army depot and stole 300 war weapons, prompting a crackdown that further inflamed the local population against the government.

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