Emergency rule to combat Thai insurgents

Authorities now have the power to detain suspects without charge, deport foreigners on suspicion of being terrorists and tap telephones as they seek to tackle a 19-month insurgency which has killed more than 900 people in the only region in Thailand where Muslims outnumber Buddhists. Security forces and government officials will not be subject to prosecution while on duty in the emergency zone. Critics fear that civil liberties will be compromised and that such harsh measures will alienate moderates caught in the conflict.

Under a new decree that grants Mr Thaksin sweeping powers, the declaration of emergency went into effect immediately in Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces, and parts of Songkhla.

The Thai cabinet pushed through the controversial law, widely compared to the Patriot Act in the United States, after a night of militant attacks in the provincial capital of Yala. A group of 60 suspected Muslim militants blew up all the town's power generators last Thursday, and attacked shops, a cinema and a hotel with petrol bombs and automatic-weapon fire during the blackout while residents cringed in the dark. Two people died, and 22 were wounded.

Legislators said that the timing was coincidental, and that three months' preparation had gone into drawing up the new decree, which has been signed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

As the emergency cabinet meeting voted last Friday, a bomb exploded behind a hospital in Yala where most of those injured from the previous night's violence were recovering. Four more people were hurt.

Mr Thaksin said that the new measures signalled the end of a conciliatory approach in the restive south: "These people want only violence. It means they do not want to talk," he said.

Newspaper editors and and broadcasters gathered in Bangkok to call for the suspension of the draconian new law until its ramifications could be reviewed. Political opponents say that the new powers threaten Thai democracy. Political analysts expect the new measures presage a military crackdown in the turbulent region. Over the past 18 months separatist violence, dormant since the mid 1980s, has resurfaced in the area which until 1902 was a Malay sultanate. It was the only region not to support Mr Thaksin in the February election.

Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist but three-quarters of the two million residents in the deep south are Malay-speaking Muslims. They have complained for many years about being marginalised and impoverished. Daily ambushes and drive-by shootings have forced many people to abandon the provinces for a safer life elsewhere in Thailand. Turf wars over smuggling rackets in the area around the porous border with Malaysia are common.

Government officials blame the unrest on Islamic separatists, and estimate that 10,000 rebels are active in the south.

Generals in the Thai military have cautioned that these mostly youthful insurgents are ripe for exploitation by al-Qa'ida, but there is no evidence that outside forces are recruiting or arming the militants yet.

The funding of Islamic schools is under tight scrutiny after a raid on one southern boarding school, Jihad Wittaya, yielded black-market Arabic training tapes and guns, according to the security forces.