The lead negotiator for Muslim rebels fighting for a separate state in southern Thailand has slammed the government as insincere and indifferent in peace talks over the past four years.
Sukree Hari headed a rebel delegation at peace talks with the Thai government from 2015 until May, when he resigned citing health issues. He was among three individuals at the talks said to represent the largest and most lethal group fighting in Thailand’s Deep South, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN).
“The Thai government is not sincere about resolving the conflict in Patani. The negotiations held thus far were a tactic for wasting Malay Patani people’s time,” Sukree said, referring to the three southernmost provinces of Thailand and the ethnic Malay Muslims who live there.
“Whatever was agreed together at the negotiating table, the Thai side was not willing to sign, and that is clear proof that the Thai side was just pretending in the negotiations, playing for time,” he said in a recent interview with BenarNews in northern Malaysia.
MARA Patani, the panel representing separatist groups and factions at the Malaysia-brokered talks, has not yet named a replacement for Sukree, according to its spokesman.
“We have to wait for the names suggested by BRN. Sukree Hari has to attend an upcoming meeting and express his views. … If he is determined not to lead the Mara dialogue panel, BRN will have to name his successor,” Abu Hafez Al-Hakim told BenarNews in a text message.
The peace talks personnel change would be the latest in a series, after Thailand replaced its head negotiator in October 2018 after Malaysia brought in a new mediator in August.
Talks launched in 2015 under the junta that ruled Thailand until earlier this month have been on hold, and their only outcome – a proposed ceasefire in one province or “safety zone” – never took place.
The negotiations were dogged by allegations that rebel leaders in touch with fighters on the ground were not participating in the talks and did not support the effort. But Sukree denied this.
“BRN is BRN … the issue about the real or not real BRN is an issue that aims to divide BRN in the eyes of the people of Pattani, so that they lose confidence in BRN,” he said.
‘BRN has never shown itself’
Sukree declined to answer when asked if BRN was responsible for attacks in the south in recent years that are never claimed by any group but typically blamed on “dissidents” by Thai security forces. The region has been under martial law almost continually since 2004.
In the latest attacks Wednesday, three soldiers patrolling a road in Bacho district of Narathiwat province were seriously injured when suspected insurgents detonated a bomb, authorities said.
“The attackers hidden in the area triggered the bomb with a radio device,” police Capt. Paiboon Keudam told BenarNews. “Suspected insurgents are aimed at disputing the area, we believe.”
On Monday, three marines were injured in a roadside bomb attack in the same district while traveling in a light armoured vehicle.
Analysts said the BRN is a secretive group in which cells operate independently and people higher in the organization sometimes learn about attacks after the fact.
“That’s the way they are structured. It’s foolproof. The Thais can take down one cell but not reach the other,” security analyst Don Pathan, an expert on the Deep South, told a United Nations Development Program representative in an interview about the conflict last year.
“The insurgents are part of the community … they’re everywhere but nowhere. And they have multiple roles. One minute you could be tapping your rubber or feeding your chickens, the next minute you set off a roadside bomb and then follow up with a brief gunfight,” he said.
In a recent interview, BenarNews asked Areepen Utarasint, a retired nine-term MP representing the Deep South province of Narathiwat, if people there support the BRN. “How are people supposed to know and support BRN? Because BRN has never shown itself,” he said.
‘We still have peace talks’
Thai officials meanwhile stressed that talks were under way at various levels, although the last publically announced formal meeting with MARA Patani was in 2017.
“At present, we still have peace talks in accordance with national strategy. The Thai government is always open for all dissident groups to talk, without forcing anyone to,” retired Lt. Gen. Udomchai Thammasarorat, the chief Thai negotiator, told BenarNews.
“Currently, talks still go on. There is some progress with some groups. Once the talks are done it will become official,” he said, without elaborating.
Maj. Gen. Tira Daewa, director of Peace Operations Center at the army’s regional internal security command (ISOC-4), said that many rebels were being enticed to surrender through such talks and only “10 percent of them want to continue with an armed fight.”
“In regard to Sukree Hari, you should see who he is. He doesn’t want to talk to us, we don’t either. There are 90 percent of them want to talk with us,” he said.
On June 14, Abdul Rahim Noor, the Malaysian facilitator of the talks, said talks would resume “in two weeks,” but this did not occur.
“It seems that everything is still up in the air; no one seems to know what the talks will look like, said Pathan, who is a BenarNews columnist.
He noted that Sukree had asked the Thai government to drop Udomchai as a negotiator after he took the safety zone proposal off the table and reached out to the central committee of the BRN.
“Just weeks ago, Sukree decided to step down. In my view, there is an opportunity for both sides to come together now that the ‘spoiler’ Sukree is gone,” he said. “The attitude among the MARA Patani and Thai officials is that, a bad peace process is better than no peace process at all.”
Mariyam Ahmad in Pattani, Thailand, and Kate Beddall in Washington contributed to this report.