In rare public comments Saturday on Thailand’s Deep South peace process, the government’s chief negotiator laid blame for slow progress on insurgents, while rejecting assertions that the most powerful rebel group was not part of the talks.
The comments came four days after a round of technical talks in Kuala Lumpur at which the two sides were said to be hammering out details for a limited ceasefire that has been on the table since the exploratory talks began in 2015.
“Deep South people are eager to participate in designing security measures because they are direct stake holders. [But] if the dissidents are not ready, the chance to include public participation in the process will be delayed,” Aksara said in a statement sent to reporters.
“Though the dissident groups are not ready to specify a safety zone, the government has a mandate to provide 37 districts in Deep South with security anyway. That is because the government realizes the people’s safety as the top priority,” he said.
In subsequent comments to BenarNews, Aksara stressed that the talks were ongoing and that the full negotiating teams would meet again, although he would not say when.
"The safety zone issue will be addressed in the next full delegation talk. I don't have a date yet," he told BenarNews in a telephone interview.
'Key men are included'
He declined to name the district Thailand has chosen for the initiative from five proposed by MARA Patani. But he said further progress had been made on safety zone implementation in the talks last week and that "the technical teams were not to finalize the issue."
Ongoing violence and a lack of concrete outcomes in the talks have led to questions over whether MARA Patani, a panel representing insurgent groups at the talks, has control over fighters on the ground, particularly those belonging to the largest and most lethal group, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN).
When it made its public debut in August 2015, three members of MARA Patani said they represented BRN. Aksara on Saturday refuted claims that those individuals do not have clout in the insurgent group.
“Some said the BRN members in MARA Patani are not the real deal. I don’t agree. Many BRN key men are included,” he said.
A source described as a “senior” BRN member told Reuters in an interview this week that the BRN representatives on MARA Patani were “former” members of the secretive group.
And in a rare statement in April, BRN spokesman Abdulkarim Khalid told the Asia Times that “the BRN was playing no part in the MARA Patani umbrella group.”
Aksara said Abdulkarim Khalid “was serving his own agenda,” since he was a negotiator in peace talks under former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra that ground to a halt months before she was ousted by a military coup in May 2014.
BRN has said it is willing to participate in talks that are mediated by the international community and conducted without reference to the country’s constitution, which states that the kingdom is indivisible.
Nearly 7,000 people have been killed since 2004 in violence linked to a separatist movement in Thailand’s southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat – areas that were part of a Malay Muslim sultanate before being annexed by Bangkok in 1909.
A Thai soldier and a police officer were killed and 26 others including civilians were injured in roadside bombings and shootings in Yala province on Thursday.
In August, police in nearby Songhkla province killed a suspected insurgent after seven men stole pickup trucks from a used-car dealership, intending to convert them into car bombs, police said. The suspects took four people hostage, killing one and injuring another.
In May, insurgents set off two car bombs near the Big C department store in Pattani town, wounding more than 80 people.