Thai Prime Minister Will Reach Out to Insurgents
October 19, 2006
KUALA LUMPUR -- Thailand's new prime minister said he will use peaceful means to resolve the Muslim insurgency in the country's southern provinces -- a clear reversal of the iron-fisted strategy of the previous government.
Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, on a one-day visit to Malaysia, said he will reach out to all minority Muslims in the predominantly Buddhist country to end the separatist insurgency, which has claimed more than 1,700 lives since January 2004.
"We will try to talk to a lot of people," said Mr. Surayud, a former army general who was named Thailand's interim prime minister after the Sept. 19 bloodless military coup that ousted the elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
"I told the Malaysian prime minister that I would talk to the Muslim leaders in the south, to the kids in schools. That's the way I am trying to present myself -- by way of talking," he said.
Mr. Surayud added that his "personal strategy" was to try "to resolve these problems by peaceful means."
The comments mark a turnaround from the hard-nosed approach adopted by Mr. Thaksin who sent thousands of troops to the south to crush the insurgency, a strategy that achieved little success.
Mr. Surayud made the comments after talks with his Malaysian counterpart, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Both leaders said they will remain in touch by telephone to discuss any problems that arise in southern Thailand.
Mr. Surayud's visit comes amid efforts by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to mediate between the Thai government and Islamic separatists who operate in the three Muslim-dominated provinces bordering Malaysia.
The insurgency had also soured relations between the two neighbors with Mr. Thaksin's government frequently accusing Malaysia of harboring the militants. The Malaysian government denied the charge.
Malaysia's only concern is that the Muslims in southern Thailand -- who are of the same ethnicity and religion as Malaysian Malays -- "live in peace and without fear," Mr. Abdullah told reporters.
Contrary to predictions in the Thai media, Mr. Surayud didn't seek the repatriation of 130 Thai Muslims who fled to Malaysia more than a year ago, citing fear of persecution by Thai security forces.
Mr. Abdullah said he and Mr. Surayud agreed that the Thai Muslims are welcome to "return in peace" to Thailand if they want to. "But if they want to stay on for a while we would also be willing to host their presence in Malaysia," Mr. Abdullah said.
He also said that it is normal for many Thai Muslims who "profess allegiance to Malaysia" to cross over to Malaysia time and again.
"It is not to be interpreted in any way that there is intention on our part to interfere with whatever that is happening on the Thai side," said Mr. Abdullah.
The new Thai government has said it wants to hold talks with insurgent leaders and has been in contact with some, but hasn't publicly said when.
Malaysian government leaders have responded by saying they are willing to host peace talks if both sides agree.
Mr. Surayud, on his first visit to Malaysia since taking office Oct. 1, was accompanied by Defense Minister Gen. Bunrod Somtad, Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsongkram and Interior Minister Aree Wong-araya.
Mr. Surayud will visit Indonesia on Saturday, the Philippines on Oct. 23 and Vietnam on Oct. 26. He has already been to Laos and Cambodia, as part of a familiarization tour common among new Southeast Asian leaders.