Thailand’s new negotiator for peace talks with insurgents in its southern border region foresees a change in dialogue partners, he told a press conference on Friday.
Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh said he expected the first official round of talks under his leadership to take place “soon” but did not elaborate.
In his first extended remarks on the peace talks since being appointed to lead them in September, Wanlop repeated the stance of past negotiators when he said he was seeking to speak with all parties including “groups who have influence on the operatives on the ground.”
“At our request, Malaysia has contacted those groups, which we don’t know who they are yet or who their leaders are. We need to wait and see when it is clear,” Wanlop said.
Asked if there would be a change in dialogue partners, Wanlop replied, “I personally think there will be a change ... As I said, Malaysia is helping us on the arrangement.”
From August 2015 until talks ground to a halt earlier this year, Thailand was in talks with MARA Patani, an umbrella group representing various rebel groups and factions. Those talks focused on launching a ceasefire in a single district, which never occurred.
Security analysts said that key figures from the group controlling fighters on the ground, the National Revolutionary Front, or BRN, were not participating in the talks.
“We can first learn from the past roles and lessons on why the talks failed. The best way is to meet the right man so that we fix the trouble correctly,” said Thanakorn Buaras, head of Thailand’s National Intelligence Agency, one of four panelists at the press conference.
“I just want to say, in brief, please come and talk,” Thanakorn said when asked if he had a message for the BRN.
Violence in three southern provinces and a handful of neighboring districts that comprise the Malay-speaking, mostly Muslim region known as the Thai Deep South dropped sharply this year, but recent incidents drew international notice.
On Nov. 5, suspected militants killed 15 people – civilian defense volunteers, police officers and civilians – in attacks on a pair of checkpoints in Yala province.
On Aug. 2, nine small devices exploded at four locations in Bangkok during a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), injuring four people. Thai officials knowledgeable on security matters told BenarNews they believed the BRN had orchestrated the blasts to draw attention to the insurgency.
Asked why Thailand was still pursuing peace talks after the Nov. 5 attacks, the bloodiest violence in years in the restive border region, Wanlop referenced a national strategy document launched in 2018.
“[We] affirm to the people, international community and the media that the Deep South is a national agenda, which the Thai government prioritizes,” he said. “It is included in the 20-year National Strategic Plan which states clearly that the Deep South must utilize a peaceful approach and friendly discussion.”
In 2015, rebels demanded that the government place the Deep South peace process on the national agenda as one of their conditions for continued talks.
More than 7,000 people have been killed in a separatist insurgency in the three Malay-speaking, majority-Muslim provinces near Thailand’s southern border since the movement reignited in 2004. Various rounds of peace talks have been underway since 2013.
“We don’t have much on new approaches, but we have sincerity, attention and determination to push the talks all the way through,” Wanlop said, when asked how he proposed to produce results after five years of failed efforts.
In September, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad expressed the view to BenarNews that Bangkok would never agree to grant autonomy or independence to the region.
Referencing Wanlop, he said, “We will try to work together with this new leader, because we only want to find ways to end the unrest because, in our opinion, there is no way that Thailand will allow them to have autonomy or independence, and it could lead to Thailand becoming hardline, and many more will die.”
“As for Mahathir’s interview with BenarNews, he may have said this out of his experience that such a long struggle may need change in the cause touching on independence or autonomy,” Wanlop said Friday.