Thailand and a panel representing rebel groups from the Deep South held technical talks Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur focusing on efforts to bring about a limited ceasefire, but officials from both sides did not say whether they made much progress.
In February, a Thai government delegation and rebel organizations represented through the umbrella panel MARA Pattani agreed to a framework for setting up a ceasefire – officially known as a “safety zone” – in one district in Thailand’s troubled southern border region.
Six months later, both sides still appear not to have settled on which one out of five potential districts will be picked for implementing a ceasefire, which would be aimed at helping end a conflict that has left nearly 7,000 people dead since 2004 in the Malay-speaking and predominantly Muslim Deep South.
“Yes, technical. The normal closed-door meeting. No statement,” MARA Patani spokesman Abu Hafez Al-Hakim told BenarNews on Tuesday.
Thai chief negotiator Gen. Aksara Kerdpol did not attend the meeting, but confirmed it was held in the capital of Malaysia, which has served as a facilitator for the two-year-old informal peace talks between Thailand’s military government and MARA.
“It is a technical meeting. ... I am awaiting the report …,” Aksara told BenarNews.
February’s framework-deal on a limited ceasefire marked a breakthrough because it was the first time that both sides agreed to advance the safety-zone issue after they held several rounds of exploratory talks in Malaysia since 2015.
Abu Hafez said talks were ongoing.
“It’s not finished. Need to continue, end of the month,” he said.
The two sides agreed to send technical teams to visit the districts under consideration for a ceasefire, and then report back to a joint working group made up of officials from both the Thai government and MARA.
Thai officials said the military would shield MARA delegates who ventured into those districts during the negotiating period leading up to a ceasefire.
A Thai observer of the negotiations said the monthly technical talks faced obstacles.
“A notable example is immunity. A couple of MARA Patani members have arrest warrants against them and the Thai side is reluctant to state on paper that it gives them immunity from prosecution when they cross into Thailand because of the sensitivity of laws,” the observer told BenarNews.
“There have been person-to-person talks once a month but it seems to not be often enough,” the observer added.
Violence does not subside
Despite the talks, violence in the Deep South has not died down.
Since February, at least 50 people have been killed and 138 others injured in shootings and bombings across Thailand’s southernmost provinces.
These attacks are believed to have been carried out by hardcore fighters with Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the most powerful insurgent group in the Deep South that opposes talks with Thailand’s junta in their current form.
In July, Aksara said in a rare interview that the Thai side was in the final stages of picking one district as the site for the safety zone. He dismissed speculation on whether the three BRN officials who sat on MARA as part of the negotiating team – Awang Jabat, Sukree Hari and Ahmad Chuwol – truly represented BRN’s rank-and-file.
Ahmad, who has served as a conduit between MARA Patani and BRN’s governing council, is the reason why the Thai government is still negotiating, according to the observer.
“Thailand kept talking with MARA because of that. The question is do you want to talk with the insurgents at all or do you want let the violence go on as is?” he said.
Although BRN holds three seats on the negotiating panel, in a statement issued on April 10, its spokesman, Abdulkarim Khalid, appeared to reject the negotiations.
A panel negotiating on behalf of rebel factions lacked a mandate to do so and Abdulkarim demanded a direct role for BRN in fresh negotiations witnessed and mediated by impartial members of the international community, he said without naming MARA.