Bangkok - The violence in southern Thailand took an ominous turn on Feb 17 when a car bomb - a favourite weapon of terrorists in the Middle East - exploded near a hotel in the border town of Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat. Six people were killed and more than 40 others were injured in the blast.
The unprecedented attack - which Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra preferred to describe as a "bomb in a car, not a car bomb" - came just hours after he announced that villages which had been identified as being sympathetic to Islamic militants and separatists would be deprived of government funds.
The car bomb has alarmed security agencies which are bracing themselves for increasingly sophisticated forms of terrorist attacks. In recent months, terrorists in the south have started using multiple remote-controlled devices to ambush and inflict maximum casualties on police, military personnel and innocent bystanders.
Some analysts and security officials believe that the car bomb - whose main ingredient was reported to be ammonium nitrate - could not have been made without foreign assistance.
In an editorial, The Nation said: "The use of a car bomb in a crowded street in Sungai Kolok signifies a change in tactics as well as a rise in the level of sophistication in terrorist attacks and the possibility of a link to international terrorism."
In the past, the Thai authorities had admittedthat international terrorists such as Jemaah Islamiah had establishdconnections with local militants but they could not say how deep the JI involvement might be.
However, Mr Thaksindismissed speculation ofa foreign link in the Feb17 attack, suggesting that the perpetrators are home-grown and may even be relatives of people wanted for involvement in theyear-long violence in the south.
The Prime Minister also appeared determined to proceed with his zoning plan in the south despite warnings that it might lead to a backlash against his government.
On Feb 20, members of the Peace and Reconciliation Network signed an open letter demanding that Mr Thaksin reconsider the plan. The network comprises academics from several universities and non-governmental organisations.
Mr Gothom Arya, a member of the network, said there was no substantive evidence showing the policy would put an end to the violence. He cited the failure in Vietnam and Sri Lanka where more people took the side of anti-government forces after similar polices were launched.
In his weekly radio programme on Feb 19, Mr Thaksin had defended his policy, saying that the government just wanted to block separatists from getting their hands on state funds.
"If we pump money into red villages that are dominated by separatists, they will use the money to buy bombs and guns," he said.
* Could Thailand's terrorism spread? (The Nation, Feb 19)
* PM warned of backlash over Southern aid threat (The Nation, Feb 20)
* Letter urges PM to drop zoning policy (Bangkok Post, Feb 21)