A military program that encourages insurgents in Thailand’s Deep South to surrender has been a source of friction lately in negotiations between the Thai government and a panel representing rebel groups in three-year-old peace talks.
The MARA Patani panel issued a rare statement last week to clear up any “confusion or misunderstanding” that may have arisen in recent weeks. It pointed in particular to comments made by the Thai army’s southern regional commander, who had touted the success of the so-called Bring People Home program and who claimed on Monday that it was causing rebel groups to “lose supporters.”
“We have confidence in the Thai peace dialogue team mandated by the Prime Minister and we are convinced that it is a formal process that has been adopted as a national agenda,” Sukree Haree, the head of the panel, said Friday in a statement.
MARA issued it after Sukree and other panel representatives gave an unusual press conference in Kelantan, a northern Malaysian state that borders the Thai Deep South.
“However, we are concerned over certain statements and actions by the Fourth Army Commander that contradict the peace dialogue process,” he added, referring to Lt. Gen. Piyawat Nakwanich, the Thai army chief in the southern border region who had boasted in recent weeks about the success of Bring People Home.
In his statement, Sukree said MARA remained committed to solving the decades-old separatist conflict in the Deep South through the current peace dialogue.
Comments allegedly made by Piyawat about Bring People Home and “14 safety-zone districts” in the region were “not related to [the] peace dialogue process between MARA Patani and the Thai government,” the chief negotiator on the rebel side insisted.
For many months, both sides have been negotiating in various rounds of Malaysia-brokered talks in Kuala Lumpur for an agreement on establishing a so-called “safety zone,” or a limited ceasefire in one district of the Deep South – seen as a linchpin for taking the peace talks to the next stage. Nearly 7,000 people have been killed in violence in the predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking region since the separatist insurgency re-ignited in 2004.
Last month, Aksara Kerdpol, the army general who heads the Thai delegation in the peace talks, announced that technical teams from both sides had finally struck an agreement on the district where the geographically limited ceasefire would take effect, but he did not reveal the district’s name or give more details.
In its statement on Friday, MARA said the ongoing talks were “still at the technical level” and that all agreements that had been reached by both sides were “not yet final” and had not been officially endorsed by a joint working group.
Abu Hafiz Al-Hakim, a spokesman for MARA who attended the press conference, told BenarNews afterwards that the things referred to in Piyawat’s alleged comments were never part of MARA’s negotiations with the Thai side.
“Supposedly everything that has been done should be in line with what it has been discussed at the negotiating table. Unfortunately, Piyawat issued a statement against what we discussed at the negotiating table,” Abu Hafiz said.
“For example, he claimed that he had succeeded in bringing people home, thousands of people had surrendered, [and] saying he had opened 14 security zone areas, whereas the government of Thailand with us just wanted to start with one area,” he added.
‘There is no friction’
At a media event in Pattani province in early February, Lt. Gen. Piyawat, presented some 400 people who, he claimed, were members of two southern rebel groups, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), as enrollees in the military’s revamped Bring People Home project.
The program encourages insurgents in the predominantly Malay-speaking and Muslim region to lay down their weapons by offering them opportunities to transition back to civilian life peacefully, such as vocational training.
Later that month, a leader of BRN’s political wing said violence in the Deep South had escalated because hardline insurgents were trying to intimidate comrades from signing up in the surrender and rehabilitation program.
“They claimed they conducted the attacks to challenge the program and to create fear among the insurgent members, giving them a message to not surrender. So the situation got more violent,” the BRN official, who identified himself as Uzmai, told BenarNews.
On Monday, Piyawat Nakwanich responded to the statement from MARA Patani.
“The Bring People Home almost reaches the threshold of success. They lost supporters; their people came out to join the program,” Piyawat told reporters.
Trying to clarify his remarks about safety zones, Piyawat said it was his duty as army commander in southern Thailand to create safe zones in all 14 provinces of the greater south, not just in 14 districts of the south.
“I affirm that there is no friction or [that] I am working against the government,” the 4th Army Region commander said.
“I don’t say that there is no need for peace talks. But it is a national level issue, while I am performing my job in the [region].”
Meanwhile, in Bangkok on Tuesday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha told reporters that the government was waiting for the rebel side to follow through on the long awaited safety-zone issue.
“The peace talks, I think, have made gradual progress. It depends on both partners’ terms and conditions. Asked when the Safety Zone could be had, it depends on them to endorse [it], not us. But the earlier the better,” Prayuth said during a weekly media briefing following a meeting of his cabinet.
Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok contributed to this report.