Thailand and a rebel panel are close to selecting a district to serve as a test-case for a ceasefire crucial to the two-year-old peace process in the Deep South, the chief Thai negotiator told BenarNews on Thursday.
In a rare interview, Gen. Aksara Kerdpol indicated the Thai side was in the final stages of picking one district from a list of five identified by MARA Patani, a panel representing rebel groups in on-going informal peace talks, as the site for a “safety zone” – the official name for the limited truce.
“They already have proposed five areas and we will determine which one is most ready,” Aksara said in a phone interview. He spoke one day after returning from a trip to Kuala Lumpur where he said he held “person-to-person” meetings with the Malaysian negotiations facilitator.
He said he also talked within the past month with members of MARA Patani.
MARA presented its list of districts after a joint technical team of officials from both sides conducted field surveys to identify potential candidates for the safety zone, Aksara said. He declined to reveal the names of the districts on the list.
“When we find one that is ready, we will announce it at the soonest, and they [MARA] can just simply endorse it later,” Aksara told BenarNews.
BRN resistance to talks
Both sides have touted the safety zone concept as a confidence-building measure and first step needed to take the peace process beyond informal negotiations brokered by Malaysia since 2015. The talks are aimed at ending a decades-old separatist conflict in Thailand’s Malay-speaking and Muslim-dominated southern border region that has left more than 7,000 people dead since the rebellion re-flared 13 years ago.
But the talks have not stopped the violence.
After the Thai and MARA delegations agreed in late February to a framework for setting up a limited ceasefire, at least 50 people have been killed and 138 others injured in shootings and bombings across the Deep South.
These are believed to have been carried out by hardcore fighters with the most powerful of the southern insurgent groups, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), who oppose talks with Thailand’s military-controlled government in their current form.
BRN holds three seats on the MARA Patani panel, but, in a rare statement issued on April 10, BRN appeared to reject the negotiations.
Without naming MARA, BRN spokesman Abdulkarim Khalid said a panel negotiating on behalf of rebel factions lacked a mandate to do so. The BRN demanded a direct role in fresh negotiations witnessed and mediated by impartial members of the international community – an apparent swipe at Malaysia, the broker of the current talks.
In late June, Deputy Defense Minister Udomdej Sitabutr, who is Aksara’s boss, told reporters Thailand might ask Malaysia for help in including all parties in the peace process, when he revealed that Thai officials had held discussions on “whether or not we have the right dialogue partners.”
In Thursday’s interview, Aksara said he recently talked with mainstream BRN members who have seats on MARA Patani.
“They are there, so I don’t know who else was still left,” Aksara said, seemingly dismissing speculation about whether the three BRN officials who sit on MARA – Awang Jabat, Sukree Hari and Ahmad Chuwol – truly represent BRN rank-and-file.
“We talked throughout Ramadan, at a person-to-person level, technical committee level and full delegation level. Yesterday, I have just met Dato, the facilitator,” Aksara said, referring to his meeting this week in Kuala Lumpur with Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, the Malaysian facilitator of the talks.
Before the interview with Aksara, BenarNews contacted Abu Hafez Al-Hakim, the Malaysia-based spokesman for MARA Patani, who said that another round of talks with the Thai delegation might take place toward the end of July, but no dates had been confirmed.
Bomb disposal officers comb the scene of a car-bombing that injured people at the Big C department store in Pattani town, southern Thailand, May 10, 2017. [Mariyam Ahmad/BenarNews]
Razlan Rashid in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.