A new round of exploratory talks between Bangkok and southern Thai insurgents is under way in Malaysia and expected to go until Friday with the crucial issue of ceasefire zones on the agenda, a spokesman for the rebels told BenarNews.
The Malaysia-facilitated meetings that aim to re-open formal peace talks between the two sides are the first since early September, when the negotiating teams agreed to future discussions about the so-called safety zones, or a limited ceasefire touted as being key to moving the peace process along.
The latest round began on Tuesday with the delegations meeting in Putrajaya. Smaller, technical panels from both sides were to convene on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to discuss the safety zones and terms of reference (TOR) – a set of ground rules for formal negotiations – confirmed Abu Hafiz al-Hakim, a spokesman for MARA Patani, a panel representing rebel groups and factions from Thailand’s Deep South.
“Yesterday a meeting was held in Putrajaya by the main panels,” Hafiz said by phone Wednesday. “We both agreed to begin discussions on security zones, starting Wednesday for three days, as a step forward in building confidence of both parties.”
Asked to confirm whether a new round of informal peace talks was taking place, a spokesman for the Thai military command in the Deep South spoke generally about the peace process.
“We continue with peace talks and our task is to create a favorable atmosphere for peace talks in cooperation with civil society and academia,” Col. Pramote Prom-in, spokesman for the forward office of Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) Region 4, told BenarNews on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the Malaysian state-run news agency Bernama reported on Tuesday that the two sides were meeting in Kuala Lumpur, and that Gen. Aksara Kerdpol was leading the Thai delegation.
“Both sides agreed to commence negotiations on the issue of the ‘safety zones’ beginning tomorrow as a step in confidence-building,” Bernama quoted a source with MARA Patani as saying.
‘Very committed’: Rebel leader
Since 2015, Thailand’s junta has been trying to revive formal peace talks for ending a long-running separatist conflict in the country’s southern border region, and which were last held under a civilian-led government in 2013. More than 6,000 people have been killed during the past 12 years in violence associated with the rebellion in the predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South.
“What I know is that both sides are very committed on the safety zone issue. Hopefully they will reach some points of agreement in this … meeting in KL,” Kasturi Mahkota, leader of the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), one of the rebel groups represented on MARA, told BenarNews on Wednesday. He said he was not at this week’s meeting in Malaysia.
Bombing, shooting take place on eve of talks
The latest round of talks began on the anniversary of the Tak Bai incident, an infamous event in the history of the troubles in the Deep South and that helped inflame the conflict. Eighty-five people who were arrested during a protest outside a police station in Narathiwat province, suffocated to death after being handcuffed and stacked on top of each other in a police vehicle on Oct. 25, 2004.
The meetings took place against a backdrop of on ongoing violence in the Deep South. A day earlier, three people were killed and 22 injured in a separate bombing and shooting in the region. The attacks included a bombing of noodle stall at a night market in Pattani province on Monday evening when a 60-year-old woman was killed and small children were injured.
On Tuesday, following a weekly meeting of his cabinet, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha commented about the bombing of the noodle stall.
“As long as the perpetrators try to seize a chance to attack, there will be violence, but we try our best to stop it. The assailants did not expose themselves but mingled with the people,” Prayuth told reporters in Bangkok.
Razlan Rashid in Kuala Lumpur and Nani Yusof in Washington contributed to this report.