"There have been too many forces there," Thaksin said on Thursday as lawmakers urged him in a rare joint session of parliament to withdraw thousands of police and soldiers from the Malay-speaking region.

 

"We need to pull some of them out, and I have asked the ministers of interior and defence to work on the number," he said before attending the last day of the session aimed at seeking solutions to end the unrest.

 

Thaksin, who has faced criticism for the deaths of 78 Muslim protesters in army custody and 32 lightly armed fighters inside a mosque last year, pledged on Wednesday to use the legal process against suspected fighters and non-violent means to control protests.

 

Unsuitable soldiers

 

Heavily armed soldiers, mostly from largely Buddhist regions with little understanding of Islam, were unsuitable to fight "terror attacks" in the south so they would be shifted to peace-keeping and development work, Thaksin said.

 

Buddhist soldiers are now seen
as ill-suited to police the south

There are no official figures on the number of security forces in the region, where separatists fought a low-key uprising in the 1970s and 1980s.

 

Thaksin, often accused of being intolerant of criticism, said he welcomed most advice during the two-day debate, the first parliamentary joint session since August 1997 when Asia's economic crisis, triggered by a Thai devaluation, loomed.

 

"About 95% of those comments were good and I've told officials to sort them out, respond immediately to those they can and pass on to policy-makers those they can't, and we will respond as soon as possible," he said.

 

Cultural training

 

Deputy Prime Minister Chidchai Vanasatidya, who is in charge of national security, said one immediate response was that "only good people" with proper training in Islamic culture would be sent to work in the south.

 

Thaksin conceded at the start of the debate on Wednesday he had made mistakes and was ready to change policy to favour development and education as major tools in tackling the problems, confined mainly to three far south provinces.

 

His emphasis on rooting out the fighters by force appeared to have had little impact on the daily killings which continue in the region, in which more than 600 people have died.