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As Thai insurgency spreads, government opens door to dialogue

A national commission held its first hearings this weekend in Thailand's Muslim south.

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Caught in an escalating cycle of violence in its south, Thailand's government is giving peace a chance.

A bipartisan commission seeking ways to ease tensions held its first public hearings this weekend in Pattani, one of three Muslim-dominated provinces wracked by almost-daily bombings, assassinations, and arson attacks. Thai officials blame the violence on local militants linked to a long-running separatist insurgency against Bangkok's rule. But some analysts suspect Middle East money or regional terrorists behind the insurgency's increasingly sophisticated and lethal tactics.

In the latest attack, two Thai policeman died after a bomb exploded Sunday near the Thai-Malaysian border. The incident came hours after Thailand's Queen Sirikit made an emotional appeal for unity in solving a conflict that has claimed more than 600 lives since January 2004.

Criticized for an overly militaristic response to the insurgency, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is now opening the door to a softer approach. Last month he offered to work with the opposition in parliament and proposed a partial drawdown of troops stationed in the area. Mr. Thaksin tapped former prime minister Anand Panyarachun to head a National Reconciliation Commission whose 49 members range across Thailand's political, religious, and social spectrum.

Mr. Anand, a respected elder statesmen, said the commission would spend several months exploring the roots of the conflict and make nonbinding recommendations to the government. "The work of the panel is not to provide instant solutions," he told reporters. "We are looking for sustained peace."

Political analysts and security experts say that the panel's aims are laudable but run the risk of being overtaken by events.

On April 2, in the first major attack outside the three southernmost provinces, two people died and 60 were injured in a string of simultaneous bombings at an international airport, a French-owned supermarket, and a hotel. The boldness of this and other attacks signal a growing terrorist threat to Thailand, and that worries its allies, including the US.

US officials describe the insurgency as a domestic problem that Thailand can solve. "We see no indication that international or regional terrorist groups ... are active in or creating the problem in the south," US Ambassador Ralph Boyce told foreign correspondents here last week.

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