By Ed Cropley
BANGKOK, Aug 28 - A bloody insurgency in Muslim southern Thailand is a struggle for the independence of its ethnic Malay majority involving tens of thousands of people ready to die for their cause, a senior separatist figure said.
In his first interview with a major news organisation since violence flared 20 months ago, a spokesman for the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) said his movement had no ties to international groups such as Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda or its southeast Asian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiah.
"We have no connection with those terrorists," the senior member of PULO, a separatist group behind a guerrilla campaign in Thailand's three southernmost provinces in the 1970s and 1980s, told Reuters. He did not want to be identified.
"Our struggle is for our own people, to get back what is rightfully ours. Pattani belongs to the Malays, just like Malaysia," he said of violence whose origins were something of a mystery until recently.
Since January 2004, more than 800 people have died in a slew of shootings and bombings in the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, where 80 percent of the population are Muslim, ethnic Malay and do not speak Thai as their first language.
The jungle-clad region, which Pattanis say is the spiritual home of Islam in southeast Asia, was an independent Muslim sultanate until annexed by Buddhist Thailand a century ago -- and PULO says the Malays want it back.
If Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra continues to be "stubborn", the spokesman said, PULO was prepared to take its fight to Bangkok or top tourist spots such as Phuket or Pattaya.
"If you look at our web site, that is what it says," he said. "Thaksin is my enemy. If he carries on like he is now, it is going to get worse.
"I would like to tell Thaksin we want back what we are supposed to have. It's not that we want to separate from you. It is merely that we want back what belongs to us."
Both inside and outside southern Thailand, PULO had tens of thousands of members "involved in the struggle" and giving the organisation donations on a daily, weekly or monthly basis in proportion to what they could afford, the spokesman said.
"They are prepared to die. We must have the same guts as they do in Afghanistan and Palestine," he said, although he added that PULO was not prepared to use suicide bombing. "It is not necessary to do that," he said.
THAIS IN SECRET TALKS
The Thai government has flooded the far south along the Malaysian border with more than 30,000 troops and police but has failed to make headway against the daily attacks, despite assurances it has the situation under control.
In a stunning U-turn by an administration which has favoured an iron fist over reconciliation, the spokesman said the Thai government had entered secret talks with PULO from August 24-27 in Lausanne in Switzerland.
There was no immediate comment from the government.
"The Thais do not want people to know about this," he said.
Wan Kadir, an ageing separatist figurehead from the 1970s and 1980s now in exile in Sweden, was not party to the talks as he was out of the picture, the spokesman said.
"Wan Kadir doesn't really know what is going on. He has no way of controlling what is going on in the south," he said.
Outlining the extent of the anti-Bangkok movement, he said an even larger organisation called the BRN (Barasi Revolusi Nasional) Coordinate was also involved in the separatist struggle, which has alarmed foreign governments and investors.
He did not reveal where militants obtained their bomb-making expertise, but said some of the older members of the organisation had fought with Afghan resistance fighters against the Soviet Union in the 1970s. "It's not very hard to make bombs. It doesn't take that much training."
Many of the victims of the insurgency have been Buddhist teachers, government officials or agricultural workers even though PULO did not target civilians, the spokesman said.
"The people who were killed might well have been government spies. That is why those involved in the struggle killed them. But at the same time, those who have been killed might have been common people," he said.
The PULO leadership, who have spent the last 15 years mapping out a sustained guerrilla separatist campaign, were not in Thailand, the spokesman said.
He did not reveal their whereabouts, but Thailand has asked Malaysia repeatedly for help in cracking down on southern separatists, who it says can cross the border with ease. There have been few arrests, creating diplomatic tension between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. - Reuters