Thailand's southern conflict costs 3.1 billion dollars, 3,287 lives

The five-year-old conflict in Thailand's deep South has cost the state an estimated 109 billion baht (3.1 billion dollars) and lost 3,287 lives, an independent study revealed Monday.

Deep South Watch, an independent research group that monitors the conflict, has put the southern death toll over the last five years of violence at 3,287 lives, of whom 1,788 were Thai Muslims and 1,348 Thai Buddhists, with another 5,405 people wounded, reports dpa referring to the The Nation newspaper.

With an average of 1,956 incidents of violence reported yearly, the group estimated the government spends 88 million baht (2.5 million dollars) per incident, or a total budget of 109 billion baht over the last five years.

Although the number of violent incidents dropped 50 per cent last year, the severity increased, leading observers to conclude that the conflict has reached a stalemate requiring new government initiatives.

Of the 300,000 Thai Buddhists who used to inhabit the region, some 70,000 have left since 2004, said the study.

Violence in Thailand's three southernmost, majority Muslim provinces - Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala - escalated after separatists raided an army depot in January 2004, killing four soldiers and making off with 300 weapons.

The incident sparked a series of brutal government crackdowns on the region's long-simmering separatist movement, which turned much of the 2 million population, 80 per cent of whom are Muslim, against the central government.

The region has been ruled since October 2005 under emergency law, granting authorities immunity in their pursuit of insurgents and leading to numerous reports of torture and deaths in detention, according to Amnesty International.

Newly appointed Thai Prime Minister Abhist Vejjajiva has made the southern problem one of his government's priorities.

Over the weekend, Abhist led an official visit to the region and vowed to investigate claims of torture and abuses of power. He has launched a review of the effectiveness of the emergency decree in solving the long-festering conflict.

With nearly 45 per cent of Thailand's armed forces based in the three provinces, there is a perception that the military have added to the tension, especially as they enjoy immunity under the emergency decree.

Although the region, which centuries ago was the independent Islamic sultanate of Pattani, was conquered by Bangkok about 200 years ago, it has never wholly submitted to Thai rule.

Analysts claim the region's population, the majority of whom speak a Malay dialect, follow Malay customs and practice Islam, feel deeply alienated from the predominantly Buddhist Thai state.

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