A series of bloody attacks in Thailand’s Muslim-majority south represents a marked departure from previous violence and could spell a political crisis for the government, analysts said Tuesday.

Four soldiers were killed on Sunday during a brazen arms heist by dozens of assailants in Narathiwat province as 18 schools were set ablaze, while two bomb blasts Monday killed two policemen in Pattani.

"We don’t know for sure but from the face of it it seems to be a higher-level organised activity than compared to the past with better training, financing and most of all better intelligence among the groups," Chulalongkorn University political science lecturer Panitan Wattanyakorn told AFP.

He said up to 100 people may have been involved in the preparation and planning for the attacks.

"Based on that estimate, it is highly likely that it was a combined effort by several groups and if it is, it could very well be some of the local organised crime groups… combined with some of the militant movements."

A separatist insurgency has rumbled on in southern Thailand for years but most analysts believe it is now virtually defunct and incapable of mounting serious violence alone.

However organised crime groups have flourished in their place, with turf wars among them over profits from illegal activities such as arms smuggling blamed by some for the rash of violence in recent months that has left 20 people dead alone since April 2003.

The robbery of about 100 guns Sunday could be linked to international groups, Panitan said, while the burning of schools has been a tactic long employed by militant groups in the area.

"This is a combined operation (on a scale) that we haven’t seen for years. It means organised crime and militant groups have united — maybe just on this special occasion," he said.

"The fact they were able to mount such an organised and unified operation tells the authorities to worry much more than expected."

The government has already fumbled in its attempts to finger the culprits as they have during previous outbreaks of violence when everyone from al-Qaeda-linked Islamic separatists to civil servants have been blamed.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said Islamic militants "tied to mujahedin" were at work this time around but later said they were probably caused by business conflicts.

Interior Minister Wan Muhamad Nor Matha meanwhile told reporters Tuesday that teenage drug addicts and unemployed people were involved.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, the Nation newspaper’s assistant group editor, labelled the situation "very serious" and said he expected it to "change the landscape of the political contest this year" ahead of elections in 2005.

"I think the stakes are very high," he told AFP, warning that the government needed to respond carefully and consider that some of its policies have been deemed insensitive by Muslims.

"The focus has been on economic growth without the moral element. In the other parts of Thailand it’s okay to focus on growth but not in southern Thailand where you have Muslim communities … They have invaded their cultural space."

Panitan called for a new national security policy to deal comprehensively with the problem in the south, which he believes Thaksin’s government underestimated.

Abdul Rosue Aree, deputy chairman of Narathiwat’s Islamic committee also said the violence this time was a substantial change from other attacks.

"We really don’t know what is happening now because the latest violence in Narathiwat is different from what has happened in the past," he said, adding however that life for most people here pushed on as usual.

"Some local people may be concerned about the incidents because this time is more serious than the others, however, they keep carrying on their normal lives."

/ Current Affairs