After two years of exploratory talks, Thailand’s junta and a panel representing southern rebel groups have yet to agree on a limited ceasefire seen as a prerequisite for formal negotiations.
In an article marking the second anniversary of the current peace process, a spokesman for rebel negotiators said he expected the two sides to hammer out some kind of agreement on so-called “safety zones” by June 2017.
“It is expected that within the first half of 2017 the Safety Zones will be put on trial as a pilot project at a designated area,” MARA Patani spokesman Abu Hafiz al-Hakim wrote in an article published Dec. 24 on the website of Deep South Watch, a think-tank based in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking southern border region.
Sources on the Thai government side appear less confident that a limited ceasefire can be struck within that timeframe. They say it depends on whether hardcore members of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) – the largest and most powerful rebel group in the Deep South –will come on board and back it.
Speaking to BenarNews, a Thai security official tasked with analyzing the dialogue between Thailand and MARA Patani said there was “no set time frame” on a limited ceasefire.
“Abu Hafiz would like to see this idea materialize within the first six months of 2017. There is no guarantee that this could be achieved. It all depends if [MARA] can get the armed militants to go along with the idea,” the official told BenarNews on condition of anonymity.
The safety zones have been touted as a confidence-building measure and a first step toward opening official peace talks for the first time since December 2013, when a civilian government ruled Thailand.
MARA officials have countered criticism that the panel does not represent the BRN rank-and-file by saying it negotiates on behalf of at least three of the group’s factions.
On Wednesday, Abu Hafiz told BenarNews that the two sides had not officially agreed on a preliminary ceasefire in a still-to-be-determined area of the Deep South.
“Nothing has been decided yet,” he said. “It is just my expectation based on recent developments.”
In his article, the spokesman said at least six rounds of meetings by technical teams or full panels representing the two sides took place in 2016, and were facilitated by Malaysia.
He also mentioned that, in recent talks, MARA had asked the Thai government for protection for members of the rebel panel, as well as the release of insurgents in Thai custody, among other confidence-building measures.
But the Thai security official called releasing rebel prisoners as a condition for advancing the peace process “extremely tough to achieve.”
“To me, the negotiation process is still in its early stage. Success which is concrete is yet to be seen,” said Kasturi Mahkota, a leader of the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), one of the rebel groups represented on MARA.
Moreover, implementing safety zones could backfire on MARA, he warned.
“For me, the issue of safety zones is very sensitive and if it is not specified and discussed well, it may provide an advantage to Thailand …,” Kasturi told BenarNews. “This process will be heavily opposed by insurgents on the ground, and will only be accepted by a handful of the community, among them, NGOs, academics and interested parties.”
The ‘real BRN’
This year’s talks have taken place against a backdrop of ongoing killings in the region, where a separatist conflict has simmered since the 1960s.
Since Sept. 2, when the teams met in Kuala Lumpur and agreed to discuss safety zones at future meetings, 32 people have been killed and 69 others injured in shootings and bombings carried out by suspected rebels. Altogether more than 6,700 people have been killed in violence associated with the insurgency since 2004, according to Deep South Watch.
Another Thai official, a senior army intelligence officer who closely monitors the peace efforts, suggested that Thailand could afford to keep the talks going indefinitely.
“[B]y talking to MARA Patani, we are hoping that the real BRN – the people who control the insurgents on the ground – will eventually come to their senses and join the process. We feel that time is on our side – meaning the longer it drags on, the more pressure will be applied to the BRN to reconsider their policy of not talking…,” the intelligence officer told BenarNews, also on condition of anonymity.
“[T]he idea is to stretch out this dialogue process with MARA Patani long enough for the real BRN to change their mind and come to the negotiating table,” he said.