Thai Leader: Muslim Militants Funded by Restaurants in Malaysia

Thailand's interim prime minister says shadowy Muslim militants in his country's three southernmost provinces are raising money through a network of Thai restaurants in neighboring Malaysia. Malaysia is denying the charge.

After emerging from a cabinet meeting late Tuesday, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont was asked by reporters how the Islamic militants that have terrorized Thailand's deep south for the past three years are able to fund their operations.

Mr. Surayud says their main source of funding is a chain of Thai restaurants in Malaysia known as the Tom Yum Kung network, named for a spicy Thai shrimp soup. He says the restaurants donate money to the militants, but that other funds come from the extortion of local businessmen in the deep south of Thailand itself.

An official of the Malaysian embassy in Bangkok, who asked not to be identified, said Mr. Surayud's claim was baseless. The diplomat said Malaysia would like Thailand to prove the prime minister's allegations.

The perpetrators of bombings, beheadings and drive-by shootings in the South have so far not made any demands or identified their aims. Nevertheless, they are thought to be campaigning for the largely Muslim southern provinces to be separated from Thailand, and rejoined with neighboring Malaysia, or reconstituted as an independent sultanate. The region was annexed by Thailand a century ago.

Mr. Surayud has made ending the violence a priority. He has apologized for the hard-line tactics used in the largely Malay-speaking region by his elected predecessor, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown by the Thai military in September, and says he is willing to talk to the militants.

But, so far, their only response has been to step up the wave of violence.

Thai officials say one of the problems in dealing with the insurgents, most of whom are believed to be youths attached to village-based networks, is that the government has been unable to identify leaders with the authority to negotiate on the militants' behalf.

In the past, the government has dealt with separatist leaders who are now based in Malaysia, but they do not appear to be involved in the current insurgency.

Wan Kadir Che Wan, one of those exiled leaders, heads a rebel group called Bersatu. He told the Al-Jazeera television network that the younger militants are unwilling to negotiate with the Thai government, and believe they have the upper hand in their struggle for an independent Muslim state.

He also said that Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian terrorist network affiliated with Al-Qaida, may have infiltrated southern Thailand.

Mr. Surayud, however, says that so far, support for the militants from foreign Islamic radicals has been minimal.