The Thai cabinet has voted to give Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra emergency powers to deal with escalating insurgent attacks in Thailand's Southern provinces.
The Thai cabinet was called into urgent session Friday morning after an unprecedented series of coordinated attacks in the southern town of Yala.
Officials said about five dozen militants set off at least six bombs around the town, and gunmen on motorcycles then fired at random and threw gasoline bombs into shops and houses. Two policemen died and more than 20 people were wounded in the violence.
The new emergency powers announced Friday allow the prime minister to order phone taps, censor newspapers and detain suspects without charge.
Thai government spokesman Chalermdej Jombunud said the measures will replace martial laws already in effect in the three southern provinces. He said the laws give Mr. Thaksin the power to place specific areas under emergency law: "In this new act the prime minister, approved by the cabinet, can announce the area that we're going to use the Emergency Power Act."
The provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani have been the focus of escalating violence since early 2004, and more than 800 people have been killed there. The government has blamed extremists among the Muslims who make up the bulk of the
population in the three provinces for the violence. Thailand's overall population is primarily Buddhist.
Mr. Thaksin has come under heavy criticism from politicians and human rights activists for using heavy-handed tactics to combat the violence, and earlier this year he adopted a more conciliatory tone towards Thailand's Muslim population.
Sunai Pasuk, a consultant with U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, expressed understanding Friday of the need to respond to the latest attacks, but he called on the government to use its new powers sparingly: "I would like to call on the Thai Government to exercise extreme caution and not create another legal measure that would endorse or protect the human rights abuses."
Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said Friday's moves were an attempt the streamline the fight against the insurgents: "I think it is the belief of many government officers in this administration that the leaders are not in full control of the situation in the south. So there is an effort to try to unify these measures and approaches altogether in one single body, and I think this is what we've seen today."
But Mr. Panitan warned that the new laws would probably have little impact in the short term, given "the complexity of the problem" in the South.