Southern Thailand's growing extremist Muslim insurgency has derived much of its momentum from the government's heavy-handed efforts to crush it, an international research institute said Wednesday.
The report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group concluded that foreign terrorists have not been directly involved in the violence.
But it warned that outside elements could come in and launch a jihad, or holy war, unless Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government recognizes southern Thai Muslims' political grievances and makes efforts to start a dialogue with them.
"There is widespread concern in the region that left unchecked, the unrest could turn into a mass-based insurgency, or even a regional jihad, although to date there is no evidence of external involvement," said the report, titled "Southern Thailand: Insurgency Not Jihad."
"Government heavy-handedness, refusal to hold top commanders accountable or to press for serious investigations into human rights abuses, are pushing more and more Muslims toward sympathy, if not active support, for those responsible for the bombings and assassinations," the report says.
More than 800 people have died since shootings and bombings, blamed by the authorities on Islamic separatists, escalated sharply in January 2004.
The violence surged after a raid on a southern army base, where four soldiers were killed and hundreds of assault weapons stolen.
Largely unsuccessful efforts against violence have focused on military suppression. Tightened security and hardline tactics have alienated many Muslims in southern Thailand, where they are a majority. The rest of the country is overwhelmingly Buddhist. Violence in Thailand's southern provinces is rooted in their ethnic Malay Muslim population's long history of claiming discrimination by the country's Buddhist majority.
Recent policy failures have worsened the problems. As examples, the International Crisis Group's report cited "the fear and resentment created by arbitrary arrests and police brutality, compounded by government failure to provide justice to victims and families."
"It is up to the Thaksin government to break the cycle of violence by a measured response that addresses the security issue, but also acknowledges the accumulated political grievances," the report said.
The report was released too late in the day for government reaction, but Thaksin and members of his administration have said in the past that they are willing to pursue various paths to peace.
The government has established a National Reconciliation Commission, including prominent members of the Muslim community, to seek a solution to the problems, but the International Crisis Group said that "unless it acts more quickly and more boldly, it may be too little, too late, to have a meaningful impact on government policy."