Al-Qaeda accused of funding Thai separatists

PM denies materialistic support


The Thai government said Friday it was failing to win over the ethnic Malays of the predominantly Muslim far south, as the cabinet’s spokesman for the first time claimed al-Qaeda is funding Islamic separatists in the southern provinces.

"The situation has intensified recently because they received money from overseas, from the international terror organization al-Qaeda," Chaiya Yimvilai told reporters.

Yimvilai was commenting on the deadly insurgency in Thailand's mainly-Muslim southernmost provinces, saying it has intensified recently as a result of funding from the international terror network.

He bluntly told reporters that in addition to funding from al-Qaeda, corrupt Thai soldiers and politicians as well as drug traffickers had a hand in the unrest. "There are also local drug traffickers involved in both financial support and buying arms for militants," he said.

"Violence will continue because there are many factors, including corrupt local officials in uniform, with both local and national politicians involved," he added.

The country’s prime minister, however, swiftly said any Qaeda support is only ideological.

An hour later, army-installed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont used his daily press briefing to reassert the government's long-held position that any links to al-Qaeda are purely ideological.

The contradicting assessments highlight the government's failure to come to grips with the nature of the insurgency that has claimed more than 2,800 lives since fighting broke out four years ago.

No group has claimed responsibility for the violence, and the government has yet to publicly identify any of the militancy's leadership.

Surayud, however, reiterated Thailand's position that the conflict along the southern border with Malaysia is an entirely domestic problem with no formal links to global Islamic extremists.

"This organization (al-Qaeda) has no capacity to provide financial support. Their only exchanges are ideological ones with the various groups operating in the south," Surayud told reporters.

Failure to win hearts

Yimvilai, meanwhile, admitted efforts by the government to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim population of the south have failed.

"We made great progress on military operations last year, but our efforts with the people remained static," Yimwilai told reporters. "We need to beef up on the arrests, searches, intelligence as well as the civil affairs operations”.

Despite an army "hearts and minds" campaign, 2007 was the bloodiest in the far south since the insurgency began in 2004, a Thai research institute said.

Nearly 800 people were killed, taking the death toll in the four southernmost provinces to about 2,800 over the past three years, Prince of Songkhla University's "Deep South Watch" think-tank said.

Army spokesman Colonel Thanathip Sawangsaeng told reporters that the army, which has 30,000 troops in the region, was focusing on 72 villages, a sixth of the number in the region, where militants held sway.

"We will be sending troops into those villages to create better understanding and communications between the state and the villagers," Thanathip said.

But he said there were no signs militant attacks on civilians and security forces would diminish in what was an independent Islamic sultanate until annexed by predominantly Buddhist Thailand a century ago.

Since his installation after a September 2006 coup, Chulanont has traveled to the south to apologize for the heavy-handed military response of his ousted predecessor, Thaksin Shinawatra, but the violence has raged on.