PULO leader: Rebels won’t negotiate with Bangkok under Thai constitutional framework

Mariyam Ahmad and Muzliza Mustafa
2022.04.18
Pattani, Thailand, and Kuala Lumpur
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PULO leader: Rebels won’t negotiate with Bangkok under Thai constitutional framework Thai police help a comrade who was injured when a bomb they were trying to defuse exploded in Lahan, a village in Pattani province, southern Thailand, April 15, 2022.
Handout photo from Thai Police

Updated at 2:22 p.m. ET on 2022-04-19

The leader of a separatist group sidelined from Deep South peace talks said Monday it would not take part in negotiations with Bangkok if independence is off the table. 

The comments came days after the Patani United Liberation Organization carried out twin bombings that killed a villager and injured three police, disrupting a Ramadan-time truce agreed between the Thai government and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the region’s main insurgent group. 

“PULO is ready to talk, but not under the framework of the Thai constitution,” Kasturi Mahkota, the group’s leader, told BenarNews via text messages. 

[P]ULO will not talk or negotiate under the framework of the Thai constitution because PULO wants freedom from Thailand.” 

Under the constitution, the kingdom is considered indivisible. 

At the end of direct peace talks that Malaysia brokered between BRN and the Thai government on March 31 to April 1, the Thai delegation said both sides agreed that future discussions would be done “under the Unitary State of Thailand in accordance with the Constitution.” 

That has raised questions about whether BRN – the largest of the Deep South’s armed insurgent groups – has abandoned its cause of fighting to break free of Bangkok and establish a separate state in the mainly Malay Muslim border region. 

On Friday, the day the twin bombings rocked Sai Buri district in Pattani province, Kasturi said that PULO had carried out the attack because it was excluded from the current Thailand-BRN talks. 

PULO was sending a message that Thailand “must negotiate with all groups,” Kasturi told BenarNews on April 15. 

When asked on Monday if his group would mount more attacks to ratchet up pressure on the Thai government, he replied, “[W]e cannot tell you about the strategy.” 

Before Thailand opened direct talks with BRN in January 2020, two branches of PULO as well as BRN and two other rebel groups were represented on MARA Patani, a panel that negotiated with the Thai side. Kasturi was one of the PULO representatives on the panel. 

Those talks, which began in 2015, were also facilitated by Malaysia but fizzled out after the BRN started talking directly with Bangkok in January 2020. 

On Monday night, BenarNews asked a source with BRN to comment on Kasturi’s assertion that PULO would not negotiate with Thailand under the Thai constitutional framework. 

“For other Patani movements that wish to negotiate with the Thais, they can put forward their terms and conditions to the Thai themselves,” the source, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, told BenarNews via a text message. 

“BRN never stops other Patani movements to negotiate with the Thais.” 

And when asked whether the constitutional issue could cause a rift between BRN and other rebel groups, he replied: “During the MARA Patani negotiation with the Thais in 2015, it was also done based on the 2013 General Consensus under the Thai constitutional framework. If I’m not mistaken, PULO’s Kasturi was there with MARA Patani.” 

There was no “Dialogue under Thai Constitution” written in the agreed terms of reference (TOR) for talks between Thailand and MARA Patani, Abu Hafez, a spokesman for the group, said in a post on Facebook responding to Monday’s report by BenarNews.

“Hence the dialogue was NOT under Thai Constitution,” he said.

Kasturi Mahkota heads the main faction of PULO that was formed through the merger of the MKP and DSSP factions, he said. A third faction, PULO-P4, operates on its own. 

It is not clear how many armed men PULO has. A supporter, who asked not to be named due to fear of retaliation, claimed that for the past five years, PULO had trained more than 2,000 combatants, including those with expertise in rocket attacks.  

BenarNews could not verify the number independently, but a Thai security source, who also was not authorized to speak to the media, said PULO had only a few dozen foot soldiers in its ranks. 

The attack on Friday was the first one claimed by PULO since 2016. 

Thailand: ‘We talk informally to all sides’ 

Meanwhile, two senior Thai military officials said it was too soon to tell whether PULO would be invited to peace talks but said the army was stepping up security measures after Friday’s attack. 

“Whether we will consider including PULO in the future, it’s up to the [Thai] Peace Dialogue Panel who, in general, wants to talk to all groups,” Lt. Gen. Kriangkrai Srirak, the Thai Army’s commander in the Deep South, told reporters Monday. 

The secretary of the Thai peace panel said talking with PULO was possible. 

“The ... peace-talk policy has it that we talk informally to all sides who volunteer to talk, on all topics, and at any place,” Lt. Gen. Thira Daehwa told BenarNews on Monday.  

“There is a question whether PULO is ready to talk. If not [we] have to step up security measures ....” 

Senior Thai officials have also said that Friday’s attack in Pattani would not derail the ongoing talks with the BRN. The last round of in-person talks ended with both sides agreeing to a 40-day period of non-violence that would last till mid-May and cover the fasting month of Ramadan. 

“It seems two people’s organizations are fighting each other,” Hisbullah Muso, a resident of Pattani, told BenarNews, referring to PULO and BRN.  “They built forces to fight each other, [which is] no good. There were rifts [among the rebels] for a long time, even though they say they fight for the people.” 

“The government, however, should talk to PULO should it want to achieve peace,” he said.

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