Thailand promises peace 'within a year' in insurgency-hit south

Thai forensic police inspect the burnt remains of the district government bureau after it was allegedly set alight by Muslim militants in Pattani province on Oct 28, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Thai forensic police inspect the burnt remains of the district government bureau after it was allegedly set alight by Muslim militants in Pattani province on Oct 28, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's military government vowed on Monday to bring peace to the Muslim-dominated south within a year, despite stalled peace talks aimed at ending an insurgency that has cost thousands of lives in the past decade.

Sporadic violence has killed more than 5,700 people in Thailand's Muslim-majority provinces bordering Malaysia, where resistance to Buddhist rule has existed for decades and resurfaced violently in January 2004.

In the latest violence last Friday, one woman was killed and at least two injured in separate bomb attacks launched by suspected militants at three restaurants in Pattani province, police said. "We are doing all that we can. We will try to bring peace within a year," Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters.

He blamed the attacks on insurgents retaliating for recent arrests by the authorities. "The attacks happened because we managed to catch many people, including leaders, of groups involved in instigating acts of violence," Prawit added.

The violence comes as Prime Minister Prayuth Chanocha seeks to present an image of greater effectiveness in containing the insurgency, based in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces in Thailand's so-called "Deep South".

It has occasionally spilled into nearby Songkhla province, thronged by tourists from neighbouring Malaysia. The provinces were once part of a Malay Muslim sultanate until being annexed by Thailand in 1902.

Successive governments have tried, with little success, to stem the violence. Responses to the insurgency have drawn criticism, including accusations of widespread rights violations against suspected militants and their supporters.

The government of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawtra formally agreed to start peace talks with a militant group operating in the southern provinces last year.

The talks were lauded by some rights groups and academics but stalled months before Yingluck's government became embroiled late last year in a political crisis that climaxed with a court ordering Yingluck to step down on May 7.

The army seized power weeks later in a coup on May 22.

Prayuth, who took power after the coup, has promised investigations into allegations of rights abuses by some troops. Rights groups say he has failed to act on that promise.

In August, a 14-year-old Muslim boy was shot dead by an army-trained volunteer unit in Narathiwat. A police investigation found a member of the unit planted a pistol in the boy's hand after the shooting to make him appear to be an insurgent.

"The military needs to wake up to the reality that they have their share of responsibility to improve the situation in southern Thailand," Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher on Thailand at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters. "They must start by disciplining and prosecuting their own troops who violate human rights."