The Thai government must negotiate with Muslims instead of resorting to military might, said Nik Aziz Nik Mat, spiritual leader of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, which governs Malaysia's northeastern Kelantan state bordering Thailand.

 

"Muslims in Thailand are angry for a reason, negotiate with them. Violence only begets violence," Nik Aziz, who is also Kelantan chief minister, said on Saturday.

 

Many Muslims in Kelantan have close links with Thai Muslims across the border, who are a minority in their predominantly Buddhist country.

 

Thai Muslims are ethnically, culturally and linguistically closer to the Malays of largely Muslim Malaysia than to Buddhist Thais.

 

Decades of simmering discontent among Thai Muslims exploded into violence early last year with attacks on government targets and a retaliatory crackdown by security forces, leaving more than 900 people dead since then.

 

Fearful

 

On Tuesday night, 131 Thai Muslims fled to Malaysia, saying they feared for their lives after soldiers arrived in their villages while hunting for separatist fighters.

 

"The violence in Iraq is persisting because America uses violence. When you exert violence, others will resort to even more brutal aggression, more bombings"

Nik Aziz Nik Mat, spiritual leader, Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party

The Muslims were detained for entering Malaysia illegally, but their continued presence in Malaysia has set the stage for a possible diplomatic row with Thailand.

 

Nik Aziz cited the US military's low rate of success in controlling the uprising in Iraq as a lesson for Thailand.

 

"The violence in Iraq is persisting because America uses violence. When you exert violence, others will resort to even more brutal aggression, more bombings," he said.

 

In July, Thailand imposed emergency rule in its three southern Muslim provinces, allowing the authorities detain suspects without charge and curtailing other liberties.

 

"We sympathise with their plight. As Muslims, it is our responsibility to help those in trouble but it is up to the federal government," Nik Aziz said.

 

Helpful hand

 

He was guarded when asked whether PAS supported Thai Muslims' fight for an independent state, saying his party would not interfere in their struggle but may extend help if they sought refuge in Kelantan.

 

Some Muslims are seeking 
independence in south Thailand

But the party's youth wing chief, Mohamad Zaki Ibrahim, was more outspoken.

 

"Muslims in Kelantan support the struggle for an independent Muslim state in southern Thailand so that our people will not be oppressed anymore," he said in a separate interview.

 

Kelantan is the only one of Malaysia's 13 states governed by PAS, which has little support in the rest of the country.

 

Malaysia is governed by a multiethnic coalition led by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.  

 

Refugee burden

 

Abdullah's government was walking a diplomatic tightrope on Saturday over the 131 refugee-seeking Thai Muslims.

 

On Friday, Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said the Thai government must ensure the safety of its Muslim population so that Malaysia was not burdened by a refugee problem.

 

"We are concerned because we do not want to see the flight of refugees into our country. It is very difficult for us to handle," Syed Hamid said in an unusually frank statement.

 

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has dismissed the flight of the Muslims to Malaysia as a "dirty tactic" by the separatist fighters, whom he accused of trying to "internationalise" the southern violence.