Negotiators from Thailand’s military government and a panel representing insurgent groups achieved a small breakthrough in exploratory talks by agreeing Tuesday to a framework for a limited ceasefire in the Thai Deep South, according to officials from both sides.
At a one-day meeting in Kuala Lumpur facilitated by Malaysia, the two sides agreed to work together to pick one of five districts in three provinces of the troubled region that would serve as a so-called safety zone where a ceasefire would take hold within six months, the two delegations said in statements issued late Tuesday.
“Both have come to an agreement to bring this negotiation forward. That’s all I can comment on,” Malaysian facilitator Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim told BenarNews.
It will take three months to select the district and another three to execute a geographically limited ceasefire, a spokesman for MARA Patani, a panel representing southern Thai rebel groups and factions, told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur following Tuesday’s meeting.
“The decision today is another step forward that we have jointly agreed to accept the framework that had been designed together,” MARA spokesman Abu Hafiz al-Hakim told reporters.
“After this the next step is to send an assessment team to execute the next step of action,” he said.
Near identical statements from both sides said they would select a district from a list of two districts in Yala province, two in Narathiwat province and one in Pattani province.
Neither side disclosed the names of the five districts under consideration, but the Thais indicated that the military would shield delegates from the MARA side venturing into any of those districts during the pre-ceasefire period.
“Thailand will give them protection,” said the statement issued Tuesday evening by the government in Bangkok after the delegation returned from Kuala Lumpur.
Aksara Kerdpol, the army general who heads the Thai delegation, could not be reached for comment Tuesday night, but last week he indicated that the two sides had more or less ironed out a deal on a framework for a limited ceasefire.
“At the moment, all stakeholders have agreed in principle to create [a] safety zone. But there will be discussions in order to map out a guideline for how to [implement] it with the participation of local people … and to define the meaning of safety zones and the protocol for all sides to follow,” Aksara told BenarNews.
‘We will wait and see’
The framework-agreement is something of a breakthrough because it marked the first time both sides agreed to take the issue of safety zones a step farther, after holding several rounds of exploratory talks in Malaysia dating to August 2015.
Implementing safety zones would be seen as a milestone in efforts to re-open formal peace talks aimed at ending a separatist conflict, in which nearly 7,000 people have been killed in the predominantly Malay-speaking and Muslim Deep South since 2004.
Abu Hafiz conceded, however, that MARA might have to persuade hard-core members of rebel groups, some of whom have reportedly resisted supporting the informal peace process, by briefing them in the field about the prospect of observing a limited ceasefire.
“We will wait and see the results. It’s too early to predict. Give us time to implement it. If this is the best for the people, then it must be supported,” the MARA spokesman said.
A technical team will visit the five districts and propose its recommendations to the Joint Working Group-Peace Dialogue Working Group (JWG-PDP), a body consisting of the two negotiating teams, their technical support staffs, local officials and other stakeholders.
Another body called the Joint Technical Team (JTT) will be responsible for assessing the effectiveness of the “safety zone,” which would serve as a test case in order to determine whether the concept needs to be improved or expanded to other areas in the Deep South, Abu Hafiz said.
‘I fix the process’: PM
In Bangkok on Tuesday, Thai junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha commented on the latest round of negotiations with southern rebels, saying he was directly engaged in the process.
“The prime minister must know about the peace talks from the ground up. I fix the process for delegates,” Prayuth told reporters following a weekly cabinet meeting at Government House.
“The achievement or failure in setting up safety zones will reflect whether those who negotiated with us have real power or not. If they do have the clout, we can continue talking on other issues,” he added.