Thai Delegation, Deep South Rebels Meet in Kuala Lumpur
Thai governmental officials met Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur with representatives of southern rebel groups, with both sides presenting and agreeing to conditions for future peace talks, a Thai delegation member told BenarNews.
“There are a lot of details that we discussed but, in general, we agreed in principle to each side’s three proposals,” Maj. Gen. Nakrob Boonbuathong said on his return to Bangkok, following Tuesday’s closed-door meeting with MARA Patani, an umbrella group representing various southern Thai rebel organizations in pre-peace talk negotiations.
“These three terms – ours and theirs – can be done,” he added.
The senior army officer has been directly involved in efforts by the Thai junta to persuade insurgent groups from the Deep South region to return to the negotiations table for the first time since peace talks stalled in December 2013 under a civilian-led government. As it did back then, the Malaysian government is brokering the current peace-making efforts.
According to a Malaysia-based source close to the rebel groups and factions, Tuesday’s meeting took place at a “police safe house” in Kuala Lumpur.
“The talks, which lasted four hours, went well as usual. Both sides have gained more trust in each other. That is good for the peace process in Deep South,” the source told BenarNews by phone, on condition of anonymity.
According to Nakrob, the government has brought three proposals to the talks this far. They are creation of a “safety zone” in the Deep South; economic development, driven by the region’s predominantly Muslim population; and “justice for all”.
For its part, Nakrob said, the MARA Patani side demanded that the Thai government make the Deep South a priority on its national agenda, recognize MARA Patani as a legitimate organization, and ensure fair justice for people living in the restive region.
“We accept MARA Patani, as we talk to them,” Nakrob said.
He gave no further details about the terms discussed thus far.
Since 2004, more than 6,000 people have been killed and 10,000 injured in violence related to the separatist insurgency in the southern border provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, as well as four districts in Songkhla province, collectively known as the Deep South.
Rebel faction drops out
One of three factions of the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) was not represented at the meeting, and has pulled out of pre-peace talk negotiations, the anonymous source said.
The PULO P4 – better known in Thailand as “old PULO” and led by Samsuding Khan – had taken part in two other MARA Patani-led meetings with Thai officials in June, according to the source.
As a result, MARA Patani now represents the two remaining PULO factions and three other rebel groups: Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), Gerakan Mujahideen Islami Patani (GMIP) and Barisan Islam Perberbasan Patani (BIPP).
The umbrella group was formed in May to act as a united front in a potential resumption of formal peace talks. On Thursday, MARA Patani representatives are to hold a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, at which the group will formally introduce itself to the media.
“As far as I know, initially the Thai dialogue panel will also have a press conference after MARA Patani makes its debut to the press on Aug. 27,” the unnamed source added.
Flexibility needed, expert says
Commenting on the junta’s efforts to persuade the rebels to re-open official peace talks, one expert said that the Thai government needed to be willing to “make political concessions, otherwise the peace dialogue will be meaningless.”
“Right now, there is still concern on the insurgent side whether this peace dialogue could really be a platform for negotiations on any substantial matters, or it’s just the usual military tactic to identify leaders for further suppression,” Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat told BenarNews.
Rungrawee is a former Associated Press reporter and former analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based NGO that engages in conflict prevention and resolution worldwide.
“Insurgent groups have a wide range of opinions, ranging from autonomy to independence. They have not dropped their demand for independence but some insurgent groups have expressed their willingness to consider autonomy as a solution,” she said.
“The common ground between the Thai government and the militants needs to be negotiated through the peace process, which is now still in its infancy.”