Updated at 10:55 p.m. ET on 2016-12-17
Representatives of the Thai government and of separatist groups in the country’s Deep South region return to the negotiating table next week to discuss a limited ceasefire proposal that one rebel source says will not be respected by militants on the ground.
The technical-level meeting – the latest round of exploratory talks aimed at ending a bloody, decades-old conflict in Thailand’s southernmost provinces – is to take place in Malacca, Malaysia, from Dec. 19 to 21, according to a Thai government official.
Thai government sources said the talks are expected to continue discussions of “safety zones,” under which a number of districts in conflict-affected areas would come under ceasefire and development projects aimed at enhancing the locals’ livelihood would be carried out.
A member of the notoriously secretive Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the largest and most lethal rebel force in the region, dismissed the development initiatives as pacification efforts aimed at pitting the local population against the 56-year-old insurgent group.
“The [Thai government] wants to drive a wedge between us and the local Malay Muslims with this project,” a BRN source told BenarNews, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Moreover, said the source, BRN operatives would continue to discredit the talks with MARA Patani by carrying out armed operations in districts designated as “safety zones.”
‘The real BRN’
Thai government representatives have met at least five times with MARA Patani, an umbrella organization of separatist groups formed last year to take part in unofficial talks to explore ways to resolve the conflict that has claimed at least 6,700 lives since 2004.
Bangkok has yet to recognize the panel as an official negotiating partner.
“MARA Patani does not have any influence on combatants on the ground but, nevertheless, the Thai government will continue to engage them in the current arrangement of unofficial dialogue with the hope that the process will lure the real BRN to the table,” a senior policy official in Bangkok told BenarNews.
“We believe the local Malay Muslims will eventually turn against the BRN if and when they become tired of the violence and see the separatist organization as one that is against peace,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“As far as the world is concerned, the Thai government is the one who wants to talk peace and the BRN doesn’t,” he added.
In a statement sent to BenarNews earlier this week, MARA Patani reiterated “its commitment to resolving [the] Patani conflict through [a] peace dialogue process with Thailand.”
The statement was issued during a two-day “conference” attended by more than 60 people from Thailand and overseas “to review MARA Patani’s activities and to determine its future political direction,” it said. No further information was released.
MARA Patani lists its component members as BRN, the Patani Islamic Liberation Front (BIPP) two factions of Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), and the Islamic Mujahideen Movement of Patani (GMIP).
In an interview last month, MARA Patani spokesman Abu Hafiz al Hakim told BenarNews that BRN was “dominant” on the panel and had six seats on its steering committee.
“In MARA there is BRN ... but there are also BRN [members] who are not willing to talk to the military. To us, this is actually BRN’s internal issue and they have to sort it out,” he said.
“There are certain people within MARA that have certain links with the mainstream BRN outside. Through these links, they are in touch with each other. … This has happened so many times. For example, in 1991, BRN was talking with the 4th regional army, in a direct negotiation, but the negotiation was not [with] the main BRN ... only a faction of BRN militia.”
For his part, a BRN combatant told BenarNews that his unit had not been instructed to cease operations.
“The only instruction we have received of late is to be extremely careful with collateral damage,” he said, in reference to the innocent civilian bystanders getting caught up in violence.
Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch blasted that comment.
“How can BRN leadership be taken seriously when they do not honor their own words? Over the past 12 years, BRN insurgents have blatantly violated the law of war by deliberately attacking civilians and using tactics that do not differentiate between military and civilian targets. Such heinous crimes must be stopped immediately,” Sunai said.
Useng Doloh, a villager in Pattani province, told BenarNews that he wants more than a limited ceasefire in the Deep South.
“I do not want just safety zones in certain areas, but an all-out safety zone in Deep South,” Useng said.
“I don’t believe that MARA Patani has real power. MARA Patani is a group of old men who use the umbrella group as a bargaining chip to gain a chance to come home,” he said, referring to the fact that many in the group live in exile.
“The [main stream] BRN does not accept MARA Patani,” he said.
Razlan Rashid in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this report incorrectly gave Johor Bahru as the venue for the Dec. 19-21 talks.