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ARKIB : 01/11/2004

Thaksin tried to develop southern provinces, says local politician

TAK BAI Oct 31 - A respected local politician has defended the Thai government's handling of the riot in Tak Bai last Monday, saying Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had tried to bring development to the restive southern provinces.

"It's not fair to blame the incident wholly on the Thai government as Thaksin is trying his best to help the Muslims," former Tak Bai elected representative Syed Bukhari Syed Ahmad told Bernama.

Syed Bukhari, 63, served five terms as an elected representative but did not contest in this year's elections. He is widely respected by locals and his views are often sought by government officials.

After 112 Thai Muslims in Pattani and Yala died in clashes with the Thai military and police in April, Thaksin had tried to channel development aid to the southern provinces, including scholarships to Muslim students to study in universities, aid for agricultural projects and, uniquely, construction of pondoks (madrasahs), he said.

Syed Bukhari said many Muslims still distrusted Thaksin's sincerity and some even chose to fan anti-Bangkok feelings, a defiance which he said led to the death of the 85 Muslims in the Tak Bai demonstration, which had started with only a handful of relatives demanding the release of six men detained for allegedly handing over government-issued firearms to Islamist militants.

By noon, the demonstrators had swelled to 3,000, and Syed Bukhari was asked to mediate.

"After zohor prayers, I asked them to go home, but they made fun of me and said I was a tool of Bangkok. When I told them the Tak Bai police had agreed to bring the detainees from Narathiwat, they demanded that the men be produced in 10 minutes, which was impossible since Narathiwat is 45 km or 45 minutes away.

"It was their uncompromising attitude that doomed the negotiations to failure," he said.

The detainees' relatives had also urged the protesters, some of whom were masked, to disperse as the negotiations had apparently succeeded, but they still refused to budge and were in a confrontational mood, he said.

The soldiers lost their patience and used a water cannon and tear gas, and later fired at the demonstrators, he said.

Syed Bukhari said from his observations the trouble-makers were from outside Tak Bai, and the detainees, under interrogation by the authorities, said the organisers were rebels fighting for a Muslim state comprising the southern provinces.

A Yala college student, Mohamad Nasir Jusoh, 21, said he had gone to Tak Bai 80km away with 10 friends by van on being informed that a renowned religious teacher was giving a talk there.

"When we arrived at the police station, we saw a huge anti-government gathering. We joined because we have heard many times of the government's cruel treatment of Muslims in the south," he said.

Mohamad Nasir said his group, five of whom were detained, joined the demonstration without hesitation. - Bernama

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