Updated at 9:27 a.m. ET on 2017-02-22
Thailand next week will hold a new round of exploratory talks in Malaysia with southern rebels and discuss so-called safety zones needed for a ceasefire, an army general who heads the Thai delegation told BenarNews.
Talks with MARA Patani, a panel representing rebel groups and factions from the Thai Deep South, will take place on Feb. 28, according to Aksara Kerdpol. The meeting with MARA will be the first this year and the first since the two sides last met in December.
“Next week, there will be pre-talks with the dissidents in Malaysia. They will have discussions on the demarcation of safety zones with our peace talk delegation and there will be formal talks,” Aksara said Tuesday in a phone interview, without specifying how long the meeting would last. The Thai side will send a full delegation to the meeting in Malaysia, he added.
Abu Hafiz al-Hakim, the Malaysia-based spokesman for MARA Patani, confirmed that the meeting would take place on Feb. 28.
"It is a one-day meeting to confirm the general framework for security zones handled by joint technical teams," he told BenarNews.
In 2016, Malaysia facilitated four meetings between technical teams or larger delegations representing Thailand’s military government and the rebel panel, and which aimed to reopen formal peace talks for the first time since December 2013, when a civilian government led Thailand.
So far, the two sides have not agreed to Terms of Reference (TOR) – a framework for the peace process – as well as so-called safety zones, or designated areas where the two sides would observe a ceasefire. Both the TOR and safety zones are seen as critical pieces in reviving the process to settle a separatist conflict that has killed nearly 7,000 people in the predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South since 2004.
Before the Thai delegation leaves Bangkok, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, who is Thailand’s deputy prime minister for security affairs and defense minister, will meet on Thursday with the National Security Council to discuss details for criteria in selecting a limited number of safety zones to begin with, Aksara said.
“A certain district in the Deep South will be selected as a pilot safety zone,” a Thai official based in the Deep South told BenarNews, referring to the upcoming round of talks in Malaysia.
Meanwhile, following a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Thailand’s prime minister and junta chief told reporters that his government was determined to press on with the southern peace process.
“The talks must be done within this government’s tenure. But then again, we need to ask the violence instigators what they would request from us – i.e. self-rule – and whether we can accommodate them or not,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha said.