Thai officials agreed to the parole of three Deep South insurgents at the request of MARA Patani as part of talks to end a decades-long separatist rebellion, the head of a government delegation told BenarNews on Thursday.
The announcement came on the same day that an army official said it would not go forward with a plan to move former insurgents and their families to Narathiwat – one of the provinces in the Deep South – as part of a military-backed rehabilitation program.
Earlier this year, MARA Patani, the umbrella group representing rebel groups in peace talks, demanded that three insurgents jailed in two Thai prisons be released to participate in an initiative to set up a so-called safety zone, or geographically limited ceasefire, in one of the Deep South districts as a first step toward peace in the region.
“The ministry of justice has processed the parole of the three inmates. They are qualified for parole … we have been looking to make it happen,” Gen. Aksara Kerdpol, who leads the Thai delegation in peace talks, told BenarNews by phone.
Malaysia-brokered talks between Thailand’s military government and MARA Patani have been ongoing since 2015.
For months, both sides have been negotiating for an agreement to establish a safety zone seen as a linchpin for taking the peace talks to the next stage.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha recently revealed that the safety zone would be in Cho I-rong, a district of Narathiwat province.
Maj. Gen. Sithi Trakulwong, secretary of the Thai peace talk delegation, confirmed that technical teams from both sides had chosen that district, but the full delegations had not approved the location.
Sithi said plans were for a full delegation meeting during Ramadan, which begins next week, to reach a final agreement on the safety zone location by the end of the holy month as an Eid al-Fitr gift to the predominantly Muslim Deep South.
“We confirm that the peace talk process is still on. Both sides’ technical teams have agreed in naming Cho I-rong district in Narathiwat province as a safety zone,” Sithi told BenarNews by phone Thursday.
Meanwhile on April 24, the president of Pattani Islamic Committee disclosed that facilities in Pattani would be set up as a coordination center and safe house to accommodate the three parolees and others from remote areas who will have roles in establishing the safety zone about 100 km (62 miles) away.
Bring People Home
On Thursday, the officer in charge of the 4th Army Region overseeing the region responded to villagers’ concerns about its plans to resettle former insurgents and their families enrolled in the Bring People Home Project rehabilitation program.
Last week, about 500 villagers from Tambon Sukirin in Narathiwat province protested the military’s plan to resettle 105 people representing 23 insurgent families who had recently returned from Malaysia. The protesters said they were worried about their safety and environmental issues.
“All officials with the military, police and civil servants included are responsible in taking care of people. When we talked to villagers and they did not want the 4th Army to continue the project, we are willing to stop,” said Lt. Gen. Piyawat Nakwanich, the commander of the Fourth Army region.
“The army is going to look elsewhere as our discussions with the villagers has come to a conclusion today. We will not be bringing those people to resettle here.”
Villagers welcomed the news.
“After talking with the 4th commander, everyone is happy. He promised if the villagers did not want that, they would not proceed,” Phandinsayam Suansuwan, a leader from Ban Leenanond village in Narathiwat, told BenarNews.
The Deep South, where nearly 7,000 people have been killed in the Malay-speaking region since the separatist insurgency re-ignited in 2004, is plagued by violence. Five police officers were injured Thursday in Narathiwat when a roadside bomb exploded near their light-armored police vehicle.