In a visit to the Deep South on Friday, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha told residents that his government was determined to end violence in the region and had made significant progress in exploratory peace talks with rebel group representatives.
After flying to Narathiwat, Prayuth and members of his cabinet met behind closed doors with local officials, then delivered packages of basic foodstuffs to some 2,000 flood-hit residents.
“In 2017, the violence must ease and eventually end,” he told local people at the offices of the Ra-ngae district government.
“We are negotiating for peace. We are not at war, or talking with an opponent, as some media outlets have said. We simply have different thoughts. Now, we have made significant progress. Everything must be clear in 2017 for the security of the Deep South,” he said.
Negotiators for Thailand’s military government and MARA Patani, a panel representing Deep South rebel groups, have held a series of exploratory talks over the last two years but have yet to agree on a limited cease fire seen as a prerequisite for formal negotiations.
‘Step by step’
The talks have taken place against a backdrop of ongoing killings in the Muslim-majority, Malay-speaking region, where a separatist insurgency has simmered since the 1960s. At least 6,700 people have been killed in violence linked to the conflict since it rekindled in 2004.
“Regarding the violence problem, we need to go step by step. Whatever issues we differ on, we need to adapt. We need to get rid of the elements that caused conflict,” Prayuth said.
“The government is determined to fix all the problems. Seventy million people and the minority must walk side-by-side, not just the minority resists us and we reject them. Otherwise, Thai society cannot be peaceful,” he said, using an approximate number for the population of the majority Buddhist Kingdom.
In April, the Thai government abruptly dropped its long-time chief negotiator in the talks and rejected Terms of Reference that had been agreed by technical teams from both sides.
At the time, Prayuth said the talks were not successful because the two sides had different goals.
Moreover, he said, Thailand could not negotiate with members of banned groups.
“[T]he government cannot bargain with them using domestic laws. Thailand cannot talk to wrongdoers,” he said.
Six die in floods
Ra-ngae district is one of 13 districts in Narathiwat that have flooded since heavy rain started on Dec. 29, and 9,528 of its residents have been affected, Arun Srisai, the district chief, reported to the prime minister Friday.
To date, nine provinces in southern Thailand remain flooded, affecting more than 100,000 households, a disaster prevention official said.
Overnight Thursday to Friday, run-off from a deforested mountain range caused flash floods in parts of Nakhon Si Thammarat, Pattalung and Narathiwat, accounting for a total of six deaths in these three provinces.
“The floods took place in nine provinces due to the third spike in heavy rain since year-end. The troubles include heavy rains and water run-off, rough seas and a landslide,” Chatchai Promlert, director-general of disaster prevention at the Interior Ministry, told BenarNews Friday.