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An exiled Muslim rebel leader warned Thailand’s new government that a violent Islamic insurgency in the south could worsen if the region is denied sovereignty, renewing debate over a possible referendum on autonomy. The comments from Lukman B. Lima, who heads the Pattani United Liberation Organisation from exile in Sweden, were the first from the Muslim rebel movement since Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and his interior minister made conflicting remarks on the issue earlier this month. Thailand annexed the independent sultanate of Pattani in the early 20th century, and the mostly Muslim region is now divided into three provinces – Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala. Residents have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens in the predominantly Buddhist country. Past governments have failed to quell the insurgency despite the presence of 40,000 troops and police officers in the region. Mr Lukman’s organisation, known by the acronym PULO, is one of several groups involved in a century-old struggle for independence in the south. More than 2,900 people have died since violence flared in 2004. Drive-by shootings and small-scale bombings occur almost daily.