Talks with Deep South rebels are alive but a limited ceasefire must be in place before Thailand can agree to terms for advancing the peace process, Bangkok’s chief negotiator said Friday.
“If there continues to be violence on the ground, the public will not have trust in peace talks,” Gen. Aksara Kerdpol said two days after leading a Thai delegation in a meeting in Kuala Lumpur with negotiators from the rebel side.
“Therefore, it is a must to cease violence in certain areas, and then we can join together to prepare a comprehensive TOR [Terms of Reference] spanning over the trust-building stage,” he told reporters in Bangkok.
But as Kerdpol assured the public that the talks were still on, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha appeared to send a different signal about the state of southern peace talks.
Prayuth told reporters at Government House that the peace talks were not successful because both sides had different intentions.
“If the other side has the same intention as us, the problems can be solved,” the prime minister said Friday.
As he put it, Thailand could not negotiate with members of banned groups such as insurgents.
Such organizations are all outlawed, Prayuth said, adding, “[T]he government cannot bargain with them using domestic laws. Thailand cannot talk to wrongdoers.”
‘They do not have a clear status’
Aksara was responding to a statement issued Thursday by MARA Patani – a panel representing various southern rebel groups and factions – which claimed the Thai side was not ready to agree to the reference terms that the insurgents see as ground rules for opening formal peace talks.
Since the Thai junta launched its efforts last year to open formal peace talks, violence associated with the decades-long separatist insurgency has kept simmering in the Malay-speaking and predominantly Muslim Deep South. A surge in attacks by suspected rebels has killed at least 35 people since early February.
On Thursday a spokesman for MARA Patani said negotiators from technical sub-committees on both sides had mutually agreed to those terms – which have not been made public – during previous discussions.
“The one thing that we and the dissidents differed on is that I had a technical panel to discuss setting up safety zones so that people have trust [in the process], but the dissidents wanted to sign the TOR,” Aksara said of Wednesday’s meeting in Kuala Lumpur, referring to zones for a limited ceasefire in the Deep South.
Lt. Gen. Nakrob Boonbuathong, the only Thai official involved in negotiations with rebels since 2013 and who headed the technical panel to which Aksara alluded, has been dismissed as secretary of the Thai delegation.
According to Aksara, it also is unclear whether MARA Patani has legitimate standing as an umbrella body negotiating on behalf of rebels and whether the rebel ranks are united behind it.
“Like I have said before, they do not have a clear status while we do have an order from the Prime Minister office [to conduct negotiations]. So, I said, we should continue to build mutual trust,” Aksara added.