Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has appointed a special government delegation for his country’s Deep South, which met Thursday for the first time in Bangkok and will report directly to the junta chief on matters pertaining to the strife-torn region.
Prayuth earlier this week announced the formation of a 13-member special delegation for the Deep South, or so-called “forward government.” Consisting mostly of former military, police and civilians who are familiar with the region, the delegation would act as a bridge between the region’s administration, the regional military command and Prayuth’s cabinet in Bangkok, according to officials.
The new panel, headed by Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Udomdej Sitabutr, will also take over some duties of the National Security Council (NSC) in an effort to curb violence in the Deep South, Udomdej told reporters in Bangkok on Thursday.
More than 6,000 people have been killed during the past 12 years in violence associated with a separatist insurgency in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking southern border region. Since last year, the military government in Bangkok has tried to re-open formal peace talks with rebel groups through a series of informal meetings facilitated by Malaysia.
The new delegation met for the first time on Thursday to discuss the scope of its authority, Udomdej said. It will be based at Fort Suriyothai, a military base in Pattani, one of the provinces in the Deep South.
“The new body is assigned to oversee (the ISOC Region 4 in the Deep South and Southern Border Province Administration Center) to the best effect,” Udomdej told reporters at the Defense Ministry, referring to the region’s internal security operations command branch and an agency that administers the Deep South.
“Whatever they have done well, we will bolster. Whatever jobs are going at a slow pace, we will see what glitches they have and we will fix them,” he added.
Udomdej said he would report back to Prayuth and to Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan.
The delegation includes four ex-army commanders in the 4th Army Region, which covers the Deep South, Deputy Education Minister Surachet Chaiwong and Gen. Aksara Kerdpol, who heads the Thai delegation in peace negotiations with southern rebels, the Bangkok Post reported.
Air Vice Marshal Rungsan Yaowarat, deputy spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, said the government had approved 12.5 billion baht (U.S. $358 million) for peace efforts in the Deep South in fiscal year 2017, which began Oct. 1.
With a population of 1.7 million people, the Thai Deep South encompasses Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat provinces and four districts of Songkhla province.
Following a military coup in May 2014 that toppled a civilian-led government and installed a junta – formally known as the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO) – Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) and other insurgent groups set up an umbrella group called MARA Patani to negotiate with the new regime in an effort to re-open peace talks for the first time since they stalled in December 2013.
In September, both sides agreed to discuss a limited ceasefire at future meetings.
Commentators and observers of the Deep South expressed a range of views about the formation of the new special delegation.
“The establishment of the forward government to coordinate field units in Deep South with the prime minister will fix the slow chain of command,” a security official in Pattani told BenarNews om condition of anonymity.
Madari Tohlala, a resident of Narathiwat, said the appointment of Udomdej as the delegation’s chairman gave him hope that things might get better in the violence-wracked region.
“The chief of the forward government is straight-forward and thoughtful. I think this body is interesting and will improve the situation,” he told BenarNews, adding that locals would also welcome at least two other members of the delegation, whom they view favorably.
But a former Thai parliamentarian suggested that the delegation lacks diversity and is limited in scope.
“Its short-coming is a lack of representatives from the private sector, either Buddhist or Muslims,” Najnudin Uma, who served as an MP under deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, told Benar News.
“These people know the circumstances of violence well and they should be invited as advisers or as part of a special committee,” he said.