Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha on Tuesday identified the Deep South district where the government and Malay-speaking separatist insurgents are preparing to create a safety zone or limited ceasefire that would propel the three-year-old peace talks.
Prayuth told reporters in Bangkok that the safety zone would be established in Cho I-rong, a district in Narathiwat province, where the latest round of violence began in January 2004 after insurgents looted a military camp and stole more than 400 assault rifles.
“Asked if I have hope in the (upcoming) announcement of a safety zone, like all citizens, I do. No one wants to see the peace talks fail. I expect the safety zone to be the process that creates mutual trust,” Prayuth told reporters after a cabinet meeting. “As far as I know, they would set it up in Cho I-rong district in Narathiwat province first.”
The prime minister did not establish a time frame for the project, but said he was hopeful both sides would cooperate.
“If the dissidents are sincere and stop attacking, the officials need no use of force, no clashes, then violence subsides,” he said.
About 7,000 people have been killed since separatist insurgents reignited violence 14 years ago in the predominantly Muslim southern region.
During the past three years, Thailand’s military government has participated in Malaysia-brokered peace talks with MARA Patani, an umbrella organization of six rebel groups in three southernmost border provinces, in an effort to establish a long-awaited limited ceasefire.
In January, government chief negotiator Gen. Aksara Kerdpol announced that Thai and MARA Patani negotiators had agreed to select one district where the ceasefire would be implemented. He did not reveal its location, saying he feared such an announcement would attract more attacks from hardcore insurgent groups that are against the peace process.
Aksara, who could not be reached for comment after Prayuth’s announcement, previously said it could take six months to establish the safety zone.
In mid-March, Waedueramae Mamingji, chairman of Pattani Islamic Committee, told BenarNews he was altering parts of the committee’s office to be a coordination center for technical teams. The office was being tailored into a “safe house” where three insurgent inmates, who were expected to be paroled, would take part in creating the safety zone.
“We set up a committee to implement the two issues in hope of making the government’s project for eternal peace successful,” Waedueramae told BenarNews.
Negotiators said the center, about 100 km (62 miles) from Cho I-rong district, will host a technical staff representing the government, dissidents and civilians. The staff would survey people to determine what they expect in the first safety zone.
Last month, Deep South analyst Don Pathan said insurgents threatened to not go through with the safety zone initiative unless the government paroled the three inmates.
Rukchart Suwan, chairman of Buddhists for Peace, told BenarNews that the prime minister’s announcement took him by surprise and he fears it could jeopardize efforts.
“People there could feel uneasy. It could be prone to heavy attacking because groups who disagree with the process may step up efforts,” he said.