Despite its electoral sweep in all other parts of the country, his Thai Rak Thai party failed to win a single seat in three predominantly Muslim southern provinces.

Thaksin's visit, therefore, was seen by analysts as a bid by the prime minister to understand the reasons for that political setback and, more generally, the sources of southern discontent.

"He had announced in advance that he would visit the south after the election. But the urgency with which he is doing it at this juncture certainly has much to do with his party's electoral defeat in the region," Thepchai Yong, group editor of Bangkok's The Nation Multimedia, said in an email interview from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

"He wants to demonstrate to people in the south that he still cares about their problems even though his party was rejected at the polls."

But insurgents put the authorities on notice with a flurry of attacks culminating in Thursday's massive explosion in a town along the border with Malaysia.

On Tuesday they set off a bomb near a Buddhist temple in Narathiwat, injuring four villagers, and another on a road in the same province's Ra-Ngae district, wounding a soldier. Thaksin held a meeting with army and police commanders at a military base two kilometres from the second blast's site on Wednesday afternoon.

Surge in violence

Narathiwat is one of the four southern provinces - the others being Yala, Pattani and Songhkla - where Muslims outnumber Buddhists in this country of 60 million people. The region has seen a surge in violence since January 2004, resulting in more than 500 deaths so far.

Mainly Muslim southern Thailand
voted heavily for the opposition

In April last year, clashes left more than 100 young local Muslims dead. Tensions escalated further after 86 Muslim protesters died, 78 of them due to suffocation, when Thai security forces broke up a protest in southern Narathiwat on 25 October 2004.

The tragedy triggered international concern and widespread accusations that the government had used excessive force to quell protests. Subsequently, a government-appointed inquiry commission held three senior Thai officials responsible for the deaths and said action should be taken against them.

Political observers are waiting to see if Thaksin's visit to the area results in any real change in his government's strategy to tackle the unrest. "Thaksin already has his eyes on the next election. He has made no secret of his desire to make the [opposition] Democrat Party 'politically extinct' in the region," Thepchai told Aljazeera.net.

"And of course, violence in the south remains the biggest challenge to his political leadership."

On Tuesday, Thaksin's government announced the creation of a new 21,000-strong army Division 15 to be based in the area. It will replace a similar number of troops moved in from other bases in Thailand.

Friendly force?

Named the "development division", the unit will comprise infantry, pilots, engineers, medical and psychological operations teams. "We want soldiers to live on the soil of the three provinces, primarily to develop the region and befriend the people," Defence Minister Sumpun Bunyanun said after cabinet approved the 8.81 billion baht ($94 million) plan.

Since January 2004, violence in
the south has left over 500 dead

"They won't be there for suppression." The new division would be educated about Islamic culture before deployment, Sumpun added.

Also, previously, Thaksin has promised $700 million in aid for the south, including the opening of an Islamic university in Narathiwat.

Yet, the Thai prime minister has made no major admission of flaws in his approach, talking mostly about the need for change or revision in tactics. Muslim community leaders and human-rights activists, by contrast, say the problem is not one of tactics but of strategies.

In a recent interview to Radio Singapore International, Somchai Homalaor, chairman of the Human Rights Committee at the Law Society of Thailand, said, "What the people really demand is that they should reduce the military operation in the south, and try to win the hearts of the people, and build confidence of the people in the government."

He added, "I don't think the prime minister really understands the situation in the south, especially what I call the difference between the people in the south and the majority of the Thais."

Wisdom doubted

Somchai also cast doubt on the wisdom of deploying Division 15, "which is full of military arms" in his view, and therefore "not really able to solve the problem but will make the situation worse".

After his party's rout in the south, Thaksin denied his policies were unpopular and instead blamed delays in the polling process, mistrust of authorities and local officials' failure to deliver security. None the less, an opinion poll conducted during the election week found a large number of Thais worried about his handling of the south.

Dropping paper doves over the
south failed to restore peace

Students of southern Thailand's ethnic unrest cite three major Muslim grievances: a failure of the federal authorities to acknowledge their history and culture; economic marginalisation of the region in a country with a successful tourist industry; and anger over such issues as Palestine and Iraq in the context of Bangkok's close ties to Washington.

To be sure, part of the problem is also rooted in the region's history and culture. The former sultanate of Pattani, which covered the three Muslim-majority Thai provinces, are seen by locals as the cradle of Islam in the region. Many southern inhabitants are ethnic Malays who speak a dialect different from their northern Thai neighbours.

The area was annexed by mainly Buddhist Thailand in 1902 as a buffer against British-ruled Malaya.

Trend reversed

In the 1970s, an armed separatist movement sprang up, seeking the region's reunification with neighbouring Malaysia. But change in government policy in the 1980s and '90s boosted Muslim political representation and economic development.

Insurgents have been targeting
soldiers and religious symbols

According to Thai journalist Thepchai, Thaksin believes his "tough guy" image has struck the right chord among many quarters in Thailand.

"He definitely will want to continue portraying that image. He is never known for being patient. He wants results - even if that means resorting to heavy-handed tactics," Thepchai told Aljazeera.net. "His recent landslide victory has definitely emboldened him. But that kind of approach will only further alienate the local populace."

Against this backdrop of persistent criticism, Thaksin's visit to the south offered him an opportunity at once to gauge the prevailing public mood and get a clearer security picture. Whether he made any progress in capturing the hearts and minds of those whose votes he failed to win, is a different matter altogether.