Thailand’s deputy prime minister has confirmed that peace talks with southern rebels will take place in Kuala Lumpur on Friday, but that the Thai government is moving to boost security in the insurgency zone through a new “forward command post.”
“For peace talks, we will follow up on Sept. 2,” Deputy PM and Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan told journalists in Bangkok on Monday, confirming information reported by BenarNews last week.
He was answering a question about the prospect of Malaysia-brokered exploratory negotiations resuming for the first time in four months, despite a spate of bombings that killed six and injured dozens more in Thailand’s upper south and insurgency-ridden Deep South earlier this month.
The confirmation came a week after Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha told reporters that Thailand’s military government was considering a date for a new round of informal talks with MARA Patani, a panel representing rebel groups and factions from the Deep South. But, Prayuth warned, the junta would not be forced through violence into speeding up talks.
Meanwhile, investigators probing 11 bombings and a series of arson attacks that hit tourist hotspots across the upper south on Aug. 11 and 12 have said that at least 20 people from the Deep South were involved in those deadly plots.
Thai NSC chief: ‘We will see how it comes out’
The talks, aimed ultimately at ending a separatist insurgency that has killed more than 6,000 people in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking southern border region, stalled nearly four months ago when the Thai side declined to sign off on ground rules, known as Terms of Reference (TOR), for future negotiations. Thailand has not held formal peace talks with the rebels since December 2013, when a civilian government was in charge.
Prawit spoke to reporters after returning Monday from a visit to neighboring Malaysia, where he discussed bilateral security cooperation with Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the Bangkok Post reported.
The next day, the secretary general of Thailand’s National Security Council spoke to BenarNews about the upcoming talks in Malaysia.
“Malaysia will be a facilitator. It all depends on when and how we and the dissidents are ready to talk,” Gen. Taweep Netniyom said in a phone interview.
“Gen. Aksara (Kerdpol) is prepared for the talks and we will see how it comes out,” Taweep said, referring to the head of the Thai delegation. “We need to be sure that the talks represent all sides so they are effective.”
The government has set a precondition that a safety zone – or ceasefire zone – be established to demonstrate that MARA Patani can control insurgents on the ground.
The current peace efforts ground to a halt in late April – the last time that the two sides met in Kuala Lumpur – because the two sides could not agree to a limited ceasefire, which the government was pushing as a condition for advancing the talks.
However, negotiators from both sides met on Aug. 14 to 16 to reach an agreement on new terms of reference ahead of Friday’s meeting. No details were released following that meeting.
Government forward command
In his comments to reporters, Prawit said that the government was also planning to establish a “forward command post” to contain violence tied to the southern insurgency. The plan is a fast-track approach that would shorten the chain of command and allow for swift response to outbreaks of violence in the Deep South, the deputy prime minister said.
The post would be led by 10 people with experience in the region, including civilians, he said.
The new forward command would be its own entity and two other institutions – the regional office of the Thai military’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) and the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center (SBPAC) – would remain intact, according to the Bangkok Post.
The regional forward command would help the prime minister, who is the ex-officio director of ISCO, respond quickly to security concerns, the Post quoted Prawit as saying.
The SBPAC oversees development and civilian affairs involving some 1.7 million people in the Deep South.
Independence Day warning
Meanwhile in the Deep South, government officials have issued public warnings about possible attacks anticipated in the region on Wednesday, when nearby Malaysia will mark its Independence Day.
Aug. 31 also marks the region’s celebration of Bersatu (The United Front for the Independence of Pattani), which recognizes insurgents who fought the Thai government in 1989.
“Intelligence units told us they found insurgents trying to attack officials in Yala. During the Malaysia Independence Day in the past, insurgents carried out violent attacks in three provinces and four districts of Songkhla [province],” police Maj. Gen. Songkiat Watakul, the commander of Yala provincial police, told BenarNews.
Malaysian prime minister coming to Thailand
Friday’s round of peace talks is scheduled about a week before Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is scheduled to travel to Thailand.
Najib will visit Thailand on Sept. 8 and 9, when both nations are expected to approve memoranda of understanding including on dual citizenship, transnational crime, transportation, as well as building a fence along their common border.