The Thai government and armed separatist groups in Thailand’s Deep South say they are planning another round of informal peace talks for later this month, despite a surge in violence.
A spate of shootings and bombings that killed at least 30 people over the past eight weeks may have prodded the Thai junta to speed up the regional peace process, a spokesman for an umbrella body representing various southern rebel groups and factions in negotiations told BenarNews.
MARA Patani spokesman Abu Hafiz said the violence could be seen as “a form of pressure on the Thais to be serious about the peace process, in order to make this process formal as soon as possible.”
“The process is still not official and there has been no formal agreement regarding a reduction or cessation of attacks from both sides,” he said via email, adding that the rebel side hoped to hold another round of informal talks with Thai officials before May.
“So it’s no wonder that the attacks are still going on since there is no mutual agreement,” he added.
A member of Thailand’s negotiating team, however, dismissed suggestions that the stepped-up violence was related to the Malaysian-brokered peace talks. He expressed confidence that the first informal meeting since August 2015, with both sides fully represented at the negotiating table, would take place as early as the end of April.
“The violence has nothing to do with the talks because, even if there are no talks, they perpetuate violence anyway,” Army Lt. Gen. Nakrob Boonbuathong, the secretary for the Thai team, told BenarNews.
Through back-channel negotiations the junta has been trying to persuade southern rebel groups to resume formal peace talks for the first time since December 2013, when they stalled under a civilian-led Thai government.
Since the junta’s efforts got into full swing last year and MARA Patani emerged on the scene in August 2015 as the umbrella body negotiating on behalf of several rebel groups and factions, the informal talks have not gone beyond the trust and confidence-building phase. As Abu Hafiz noted, both sides have yet to agree to a ceasefire.
The insurgency in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim, Malay-speaking southern border region has lasted since the early 1960s, but picked up again in 2004 after a long lull in fighting.
Over the past 12 years, more than 6,500 people have been killed and at least 11,000 injured in violence associated with the conflict, according to Deep South Watch (DSW), a local think-tank.
Amid the efforts to jumpstart formal peace talks, the number of deaths related to the conflict dropped last year to a record low of 246 since 2004, DSW reported.
But the intensity of attacks by suspected rebels and clashes between insurgents and Thai security forces has increased sharply since the Thai military raided a rebel hideout in Nong Chik, a district in Pattani province, on Feb. 10.
Infighting among rebels?
Commentators on both sides attribute the surge in violence to disagreements among the rebel ranks over the peace process.
Some members of Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the largest and most powerful of the rebel groups and which is represented on MARA Patani, have split from BRN because they don’t agree with the process, said a former BRN commander who identified himself only as “Abdullah.”
“As far as I know from active BRN members, they have formed a new unit that perhaps includes PULO members to counter the government forces, to denounce the insincere peace talks and to oppose to MARA Patani,” he told BenarNews during an interview in Pattani, referring to the Patani United Liberation Front, another rebel group.
On two occasions last year, a secretive group that identified itself as the Information Department of BRN publicized its objections to the current peace process, but it did not identify MARA Patani by name.
On Oct. 12, the group issued a four-page statement demanding that the peace process involve international mediators and that Thailand recognize the sovereignty of the “Patani.” This was the same demand made by BRN leaders that led to the previous round of formal talks collapsing three Decembers ago.
Angkhana Neelapaijit, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, told Benar that she had learned that “many armed elements on the ground do not accept those in MARA Patani at the negotiation table as their representatives, despite the existence of BRN members.”
Angkhana is the wife of a Muslim lawyer from the Deep South who disappeared 12 years ago, and whose clients were suspected insurgents in military custody.
As Deep South Watch director Srisompob Jitprisomsri sees it, through the uptick in violence rebels are “trying to show resistance to the government.”
“Recently, the BRN started to kill more civilians and officials. It is because they are preparing to launch bigger attacks,” Srisompob told BenarNews.
“However, I believe the peace-talk approach that can be accepted by all will achieve peace,” he added.
‘Some are outside the control of MARA’
Abu Hafiz of MARA Patani acknowledged that not all rebel groups and factions were united behind the umbrella body.
“There are armed groups who are affiliated with MARA and some are outside the control of MARA, including those from unknown groups,” he told Benar.
“Usually these militia groups have been created by rebel soldiers – they are believed to be involved in individual assassinations and also drive-by shootings at crowded areas, such as coffee shops, or in villages,” Abu said.
In spite of skepticism voiced by some analysts, Lt. Gen. Nakrob said that two BRN leaders who were part of the MARA Patani negotiating team from the beginning last year – Awang Jabat and Sukree Hari – had not pulled out of the umbrella group and were still engaged in the peace process.
But the secretary of the Thai negotiating team did acknowledge that divisions existed within the rebel ranks, as well as on the Thai side, over the process aimed at ending decades of bloodshed in the Deep South.
Citing as an example BRN leaders who oppose peace talks, Nakrob suggested that, sooner or later, they would have no choice but to follow the will of people in the region.
“Both sides, we and dissidents, have some individuals who agree with, who are neutral toward and who are against the talks. But at the end of the day, the ones who are opposed to the talks will need to be with their supporters, and they [will] need to agree,” Nakrob told Benar.