PATTANI, Thailand (AFP) — Thailand's Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat on Tuesday declared that separatist violence in the far south had eased, as he made his first official tour of the majority-Muslim region.
More than 3,400 people have been killed in rebel attacks by shadowy insurgent groups operating in the region since January 2004 and successive governments have struggled to quell the unrest.
Somchai said in his first policy statement earlier this month his new government was committed to tackling the ongoing insurgency by reaching out to the different communities and promoting economic development.
"I have to take care of people's well-being and the southern unrest is part of my urgent agenda," Somchai said during his first visit to the far south since taking office in September.
"I have been briefed by regional bodies and I consider the situation has improved, but still we cannot be complacent," he told reporters.
He said urgent priorities in the troubled southern provinces were improving safety for security officials, upgrading their equipment, improving education and shoring up the price of rubber, the south's key crop.
Independent monitoring group Deep South Watch reported 18 deaths in the south during the first two weeks of October and said that was the lowest number of fatalities in that time period in four years.
Somchai arrived in Pattani province and travelled to Narathiwat, and was due to return to Bangkok later Tuesday.
He was accompanied on his trip by the powerful army chief General Anupong Paojinda, who recently hinted that Somchai should resign after violent street clashes on October 7 between police and protesters left two people dead.
Thailand's three far southern provinces were an ethnic Malay sultanate until mainly-Buddhist Thailand annexed the region in 1902, provoking decades of tensions.
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