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Thai schools closed on violence fears

Violence in Thailand’s Muslim-dominated south forced hundreds of schools to close Wednesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Violence in Thailand’s Muslim-dominated south forced hundreds of schools to close Wednesday, while two lawmakers scuffled in parliament over the government’s handling of a riot in the region last week that left 85 people dead.

Warnings that Muslim insurgents may try to abduct Buddhist teachers and students prompted most schools in the country’s three southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani to shut until at least Monday, education officials said.

The closed schools were in the countryside where they cannot easily be protected. Schools in urban areas mostly remained open.

The school closings came a day after a Buddhist community leader in Narathiwat was beheaded. A note by his head said the killing was revenge for the deaths of 85 Muslim demonstrators last week in Narathiwat’s Tak Bai district.

Meanwhile, two senators scuffled in parliament during a debate over the government’s handling of the Oct. 25 riot, which has drawn harsh criticism at home and abroad. Seven people were killed when police opened fire on the crowd and another 78 were suffocated in military custody after being stacked on top of each other in trucks taking them to detention centers.

Sen. Adul Wanchbaitanawong lambasted lawmakers critical of the administration’s handling of the violence, accusing them of “siding with the terrorists.”

Prathin Santhiprapob, a former national police chief, objected and punched Adul Wanchbaitanawong several times before being separated by colleagues and guards.

U.N. employees have been warned to exercise “extreme caution” while traveling in Thailand’s southern provinces. The world body said that if the security situation worsens, “a travel restriction into the affected southern provinces may become necessary.” The warning was in an Oct. 26 internal e-mail seen Wednesday by The Associated Press.

Since January, more than 400 people have died in the south, many in drive-by shootings by motorcyclists. The government blames Islamic separatists for the violence while Muslim leaders cite discrimination and heavy-handed tactics by officials against the religious minority.

In the latest violence, police said gunmen broke into the house of police Sgt. Thawee Boontrap on Wednesday in Songkhla province, which borders Pattani, and fatally shot him.

Also Wednesday, four men stormed a grocery shop in Narathiwat’s Yingor district and shot to death Boosaw Saeseng, 72, and seriously wounded her son, Prasert Saeseng, 39.

“The troubles in the south have come with the global realities of a more radical brand of Islam in some areas,” Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said Tuesday.

He said last week’s deaths “should never have happened,” adding that it “was not the government’s intention to shoot its own foot by creating an incident that would cause such great trouble for itself.”

Government criticized
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government has come under severe domestic and international criticism for its handling of the riot, during which seven people were killed by gunfire and 78 others were crushed to death or suffocated after being detained and packed into military trucks.

With the government under pressure to take action, the army general in charge of security in the south — seen as a hard-liner against Muslim insurgents there — was transferred to an inactive post Tuesday.

Narathiwat is one of three Muslim-dominated provinces in the south that have been wracked by violence the government blames on Muslim militants seeking a separate state. More than 400 people, many of them policemen, have died this year in the region. Muslims account for about 5 percent of predominantly Buddhist Thailand’s population.

The transfer of Lt. Gen. Pisarn Wattanawongkhiri came shortly after the government announced it had established an 11-member panel to investigate the incident at Tak Bai. It will be headed by Pichet Sunthonpiphit, a legal expert and former ombudsman of Parliament, and will include at least three Muslims. The panel is expected to report in 30 days.

Successor not yet picked
Pisarn, who was appointed to his current post in April, will be replaced by a deputy commander, who has not yet been selected, said army spokesman Maj. Jitanat Poonnotop.

Pisarn told a news conference Tuesday he asked to be moved to army headquarters to allow the investigation to proceed. “I am prepared to take responsibility if the committee finds that I am to blame for what happened,” he said.

Also Tuesday, a gunman on a motorcycle seriously wounded a Buddhist man, Vitaya Chankong, as he rode home from a market on a motorcycle with his wife and 5-year-old son in the province’s Bajor district, said police Col. Somchai Sawatsak.

In April, another violent government suppression of Muslims was also followed by the beheading of an assistant village headman in Narathiwat.

On April 28, police and soldiers killed 107 suspected militants who attacked police posts in a failed attempt to seize firearms.