Three years after the Thai government kicked off formal peace efforts in the violence-wracked Deep South, the two sides remain mired in the “trust-building” phase.
Those efforts stalled for longer than a year at one point, but they are still stuck in phase one even though Thailand’s now-ruling junta repeatedly said that it expected to strike a peace deal with the rebels before the end of 2015 – phase two.
A member of the government’s negotiating team now says that the military-led government has set a June 2016 deadline for the signing of an agreement.
Last week, Lt. Gen. Nakrob Boonbuathong told reporters in Bangkok that he hoped dissidents would sign “an agreement to solve the differences” sometime during the first half of this year.
However, he did not say what would happen if both sides failed to agree to a deal by the end of June. An agreement would pave the way for the drafting of a road map to peace in the Deep South – the third phase of the process.
On Sunday, around 100 people turned out in Pattani province for a seminar marking the third anniversary of the signing of a document by Thai officials and representatives of southern rebel groups, which set the last round of formal peace talks in motion on Feb. 28, 2013.
Those Malaysia-brokered talks stalled in December 2013 under a civilian-led government, when the rebel side posted an online video listing demands that were deemed as unacceptable to the Thai side.
It wasn’t until last year that the junta, which toppled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a May 2014 coup, resumed efforts aimed at persuading insurgent groups to return the formal negotiations table.
Since last May, the junta and representatives of rebel groups have held a series of back-channel meetings aimed at jump-starting formal talks.
“After the latest [off-the-record] talks in Penang earlier in February, we are near to clinching a conclusion of a term of reference – an agreement to solve the differences,” Nakrob said Thursday at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, but without giving a specific date.
He said the peace process was still in phase one because it has support of only 50 percent from the rebel side. Fifteen percent to 20 percent of rebels strongly opposed the process while another 30 percent are neutral on the issue, Nakrob conceded.
Peace ‘not impossible to realize’: rebel negotiator
A peace agreement would aim to end an insurgency in the predominantly Muslim, Malay-speaking Deep South in which more than 6,000 people have died in related violence since January 2004. On Saturday, a car bombing outside a police station in Pattani injured at least seven people, Agence France-Presse reported.
The next day, during Sunday’s seminar at the Pattani campus of Prince of Songkla University, the Thai army’s top commander in the region said the military fully endorsed the peace efforts.
“Security agencies accept the peace talks. They never objected to it because peace talks [represent] a universal approach,” Maj. Gen. Shinawatra Mandesh told the seminar.
If the military could contain violence in the region and both sides finally could reach an agreement to solve their difference, “the saga will end,” he said.
The seminar also featured the screening of videotaped message from Awang Jabat, the head of MARA Patani, an umbrella group representing various rebel groups and factions in informal negotiations with the junta.
“MARA Patani will be a friend as well as an opponent at the negotiation table,” Awang said in the 18-minute video.
“Establishing peace in Patani is not impossible to realize. Peace can be achieved with commitment and sacrifice, when both sides acknowledged failures and mistakes in the past through dialogue and negotiation process,” he added.
Awang also acknowledged that the setting up of so-called “safe zones,” or ceasefire zones that are among the confidence-building measures included for phase one, have been hard to achieve.
“We have already noted that the local people have voiced their demand to set up safe zones. … Setting up safety zones in a conflict area has never been easy and it could not be announced by just one side as we had heard. No one has ever done so,” Awang added, alluding to the army Fourth Regional command, which Maj. Gen. Maj. Gen. Shinawatra leads.
‘No side should try to be an only victor’
Sunday’s seminar was organized by Deep South Watch, a local NGO that monitors the conflict and serves as a platform for discussing ways to end it.
Professor Srisompob Jitpiromsri, the director of Deep South Watch, said it was time for both sides to jump-start the peace process.
“We want to see peace talk get going forward,” he told BenarNews.
“Both sides must offer reasonable conditions. No side should try to be an only victor. Each of them must make concessions and don’t corner the other, or violence will come back,” Srisompob warned.