Thailand, Southern Rebels Agree to Discuss Safety Zones

Razlan Rashid, Hata Wahari and Pimuk Rakkanam
Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok
160902-TH-talks-620.jpg Village leaders attend a meeting with government officials in the southern Thai province of Narathiwat to discuss peace talks with insurgents, Aug. 30, 2016.

In their latest round of exploratory peace talks, representatives of the Thai government and southern rebel groups agreed Friday to discuss a limited ceasefire at future meetings, including a proposal by a network of women’s groups in the conflict zone.

“The Thai peace-talk team addressed the Thai PM’s concerns and wish to end violence on the ground before all else. This coincided with Deep South women activists’ demands for safety zones,” Gen. Aksara Kerdpol, chief of the Thai negotiating team, told reporters upon returning to Bangkok on Friday afternoon from the meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

“So we passed these demands on to the dissidents [Party B] so they may consider them, reply in writing, or place them on the agenda for the next meeting,” he said, referring to the rebel side.

Abu Hafiz Al-Hakim, the spokesman for MARA Patani, a panel representing rebel groups and factions, said both sides agreed to talk about safety zones at future meetings. No date was given for when the next encounter would take place.

“We are now seeking NGOs to come up with proposals on safety zones; as they are on the ground, they know the situation better. … At the moment, we have one from Women’s Agenda for Peace, an all-women based NGO. The NGO has a network of 23 civil societies in the Deep South and they’re pushing for peace,” he told BenarNews.

“I won’t say today’s meeting is a big step forward, but it is a step forward, as we had many obstacles before,” Abu Hafiz said, adding, “and now we have agreed upon talking about an important stage – which is safety zones.”

Representatives from Malaysia, which is brokering the peace process, declined to comment.

Abu Hafiz Al-Hakim (wearing red tie), spokesman for MARA Patani, and other members of the panel representing Thai Deep South rebel groups hold a post-meeting press conference at the Swiss Garden Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Sept. 2, 2016. [Hata Wahari/BenarNews]

Bombings ‘not an expansion’ of insurgency

The three-hour meeting in the Malaysian capital marked the first time that full delegations from both sides had met since late April in efforts to resume formal talks, stalled since 2013, for ending a long-running separatist insurgency in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim Deep South.

After the April meeting, Kerdpol said both sides had to agree to so-called safety zones – or a limited ceasefire – before Thailand could agree to ground rules for formal peace talks, or Terms of Reference (TOR).

In mid-August, technical teams from the two sides hammered out a revised TOR, but neither Kerdpol nor a spokesman for the rebels divulged any details about that on Friday.

Friday’s meeting took place despite deadly bombings last month that targeted tourist areas in Thailand’s upper south, which Thai officials have linked to people from the Deep South. Eleven bombings killed four people at tourist sites across the upper south on Aug. 11-12.

However, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said Friday he was confident that the attacks did not signify a widening of the insurgency that has killed more than 6,000 people in Thailand’s southern border region since 2004.

“I am confident the attacks were not the expansion [of insurgent operations], but a political issue,” Prawit told reporters in Bangkok, suggesting that someone had funded the attacks to instigate unrest.

Car-bomb found, defused

The meeting went on despite a car-bomb being found and defused early Friday morning outside a police station in Narathiwat, one of the provinces of the Deep South, local authorities said.

According to a rebel source, disgruntled members of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), one of the insurgent groups represented on MARA Patani, were trying to send a message.

“We intend to have the bomb explode on the day the Thais and MARA Patani hold talks because we want to voice disagreement to MARA Patani,” an unnamed BRN member told BenarNews on Friday.

The network of women’s NGOs from the Deep South had made themselves heard before Friday’s meeting by demonstrating in the streets of Pattani province a day earlier, calling on both sides to make the issue of safety zones a priority. Ahead of the meeting, the network also submitted a proposal on safety zone to the delegations.

“I have high hope for the peace-talk process and am glad that both sides heeded the calls from female citizens,” Rosida Pusu, chairwoman of the Southern Women’s Peace Network to Stop Violence – one of 23 NGOs that submitted the proposal and marched on Thursday – told BenarNews on Friday.

“Streets, markets, temples, mosques and school must be safe for all innocents,” she added.

Rapee Mama in Narathiwat, Thailand and Nasueroh in Pattani, Thailand contributed to this report.


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