The Thai junta and southern insurgents both said Thursday they were going ahead with a new round of informal peace talks in Kuala Lumpur on Friday, but the government warned that ongoing violence by rebels could impede the process.
“The talks are not cancelled, but we will try to tell them to stop violence first so that the [peace] process can progress to the point where we can have clear schedules of what we will do and sign them,” Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters in Bangkok.
“It has not been cancelled. The [Thai] dialogue team will go to Malaysia on Sept. 2,” he added, in responding to questions from journalists.
Last week, according to media reports, Prawit had said he didn’t know if negotiations would be put on hold due to a car-bombing that killed two people outside a hotel in Pattani, one of the provinces in Thailand’s insurgency-ridden Deep South.
Two days earlier, Thai officials had said they suspected that as many as 20 people from the Deep South were involved in 11 bombings that killed four people at tourist sites across the upper south on Aug. 11-12.
The Thai junta has set a precondition that the rebel side must agree to a “safety zone” – or limited ceasefire – before they can sign off on ground rules for future negotiations, known as the Terms of Reference (TOR).
On Thursday, Prawit indicated there would be “no signing of a TOR” on Friday in Kuala Lumpur.
On the rebel side, MARA Patani spokesman Abu Hafiz Al-Hakim told BenarNews that a one-day meeting with the Thai delegation was set for Friday in the Malaysian capital.
Sukree Haree, a senior leader of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) – the largest and most heavily armed of the southern Thai insurgent groups – will lead the rebel delegation, Hafiz said.
He shared no more details.
Widows and orphans
Since 2015, Thailand’s military government has held a series of exploratory meetings with MARA Patani, a panel representing rebel groups and factions from the Deep South, in an effort to reopen official peace talks last held in 2013, when a civilian-led government was in power in Bangkok.
But the most recent talks ground to a halt four months ago, when the Thai side declined to agree to the TOR being considered at that time. Signing the TOR would formally launch the talks.
More than 6,000 people have died through roadside bombings, shootings and other violence associated with the insurgency in Thailand’s Muslim-dominated, Malay-speaking southern border region since the conflict flared up again in 2004.
In Pattani province on Thursday, more than 100 women representing local NGOs marched in Muang district, calling for the issue of the safety zone to be discussed at Friday’s meeting.
“The unrest in the southern provinces has killed and wounded many thousands of people and has left nearly 4,000 widows and 7,000 orphans. That is the reason we are calling on the issue of a safety area [to be put] on the peace-talk agenda,” Rosida Pusu, chairwoman of the Southern Women’s Peace Network to Stop Violence, told BenarNews.
Upcoming visit by Malaysian PM
The Deep South lies across the border with Malaysia, which is facilitating the talks.
Apart from being home to an insurgency, the Deep South is notorious as a zone for cross-border crime. Thai authorities also have long suspected insurgents of crossing the border to launch attacks inside Thailand and then retreating to safe havens in Malaysia.
Many people living on both sides of the border hold dual Thai-Malaysian citizenship.
The issue of dual citizenship will be high on the agenda when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak arrives in Thailand on Sept. 8-9 for talks with his Thai counterpart, Prayuth Chan-o-cha.
At the end of those meetings, the two nations are expected to sign off on memoranda about dual citizenship, cross-border violence and criminality, and the construction of a fence along their common border, among other matters.
Razlan Rashid in Kuala Lumpur and Nasueroh in Pattani, Thailand contributed to this report.