Thai junta chief eyes halal hub for restive south

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha shakes a man's hand at a ceremony to distribute land deeds to locals in Narathiwat, on July 25, 2016.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha shakes a man's hand at a ceremony to distribute land deeds to locals in Narathiwat, on July 25, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

NARATHIWAT, Thailand (AFP) - Thailand's junta chief vowed Monday (July 25) to reboot the flagging economy of the kingdom's poor and rebel-hit south, including by making the Muslim-majority region a hub for halal produce.

Thailand's southernmost provinces have been wracked by violence since 2004 that has left over 6,500 people dead and eviscerated the economy which depends heavily on agriculture.

But the near-daily shootings and bombings make few international headlines, while Bangkok is accused of ignoring the region's plight.

Prayut Chan-o-cha's military government, which came to power in a 2014 coup, has failed to revive peace talks with the rebels.

On Monday he turned his focus to the economy in one of Thailand's poorest regions vowing to drive investment despite the ongoing violence.

"It is time to bring good economic activity here. I will do everything for this area," Prayut said during a rare visit to Narathiwat, one of the four insurgency-wracked states bordering Malaysia.

"The government will support every idea, particularly the halal food business so that Thailand can become number one" in Southeast Asia, he added.

Thailand is the world's 13th largest halal producers, according to government figures from 2015, but the sector is largely based outside of the strife-torn "Deep South".

Prayut's administration has approved plans to inject the industry with cash in bid to turn Thailand into one of the top five largest exporters of halal products and services.

The southern rebels are fighting for greater autonomy from majority-Buddhist Thailand, which they accuse of suppressing their distinct Muslim-Malay culture.

Rights groups say soldiers' history of heavy-handed raids, extrajudicial killings, torture and other abuses in the region have sewed deep mistrust of the military among locals.

The area is blanketed by troops and volunteer rangers, who are granted a long leash to arrest and detain suspects under the emergency laws that have governed the far south for the past decade.

"Do not think the government is untrustworthy," Prayut said in his speech Monday. "We will listen to people's voices in this area, please trust each other." During his visit gunmen shot and killed a defence volunteer and wounded a village chief in neighbouring Yala province, police said.