Violence from an insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South fell to a historic low in 2017, analysts said, even as peace talks gained little traction and failed to produce a long-awaited truce.
Insurgency-related incidents were at their lowest since the decades-old separatist conflict in the mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking southern border region flared in 2004, according to Deep South Watch, a think-tank based in Pattani province.
“The start of negotiations in 2013 is the pivotal point of the violence in Deep South. In general, the violence declined, and it benefits people,” Professor Srisompob Jitpiromsri, who heads the think-tank, told BenarNews.
He was referring to peace talks with the rebels that began four years ago under the government of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. In 2015, a military-led government that toppled Yingluck in a coup started exploratory talks with a new group, MARA Patani, an umbrella panel that claims to represent various rebel groups and factions in Malaysia-brokered negotiations.
Since 2004, nearly 7,000 people have been killed and more than 13,000 have been injured in violence associated with the insurgency in the heavily militarized region, according to Deep South Watch.
But violence has declined steadily since 2013, it said. This year, 235 people were killed and 356 injured in 545 incidents across the Deep South, compared with a high of 892 people killed and 1,681 wounded in 2007.
The 2017 statistics didn’t include two suspected rebel attacks that killed one soldier and injured six other people on Tuesday in Narathiwat, another province in the region.
“In the past two years, we couldn’t create much violence for many reasons. The military is everywhere, in the villages and so on,” a member of the National Revolutionary Front (BRN), the largest and most powerful of rebel groups in the Deep South, told BenarNews.
“But there are orders to carry out attacks, and sometimes we failed,” the rebel said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Zachary Abuza, a U.S.-based expert on the insurgency in the Thai Deep South, said the decline in violence resulted from the proliferation of military checkpoints and a change in tactics by the BRN, which underwent a change of leadership following the deaths of its two founders in 2017.
“Violence is down because the insurgents see no need for it. They have driven Buddhists out of large swaths of the south,” Abuza wrote in a recent column for BenarNews.
“The BRN insurgents in southern Thailand have demonstrated that they are able to turn on the violence at will,” he added.
Meanwhile, questions lingered throughout 2017 over whether MARA Patani truly represents all the rebel groups in the Deep South and whether BRN is on board with the current peace process.
Abu Hafiz Al-Hakim, a Malaysia-based spokesman for MARA, insisted in an interview with BenarNews this year that the panel represented BRN because, he said, BRN leaders occupied three of the seats on MARA.
In April, in a rare statement, BRN criticized the current negotiations between Thailand and MARA and suggested that the panel wasn’t really negotiating on its behalf. BRN demanded a direct role in fresh talks that would be mediated by “impartial” members of the international community.
Don Pathan, a BenarNews contributor and security expert based in southern Thailand, said sources had informed him in September that there was “bad blood between the BRN and Mara Patani, and this will take time to overcome.”
Srisompob, the director of Deep South Watch, said a different set of peace talks, including with the leader of BRN, could start sometime next year in Saudi Arabia.
“We heard a report that the BRN faction of Doonloh Wae-mano would join the talks. I heard it would be held in Saudi Arabia, not Malaysia. That is a good trend,” Srisompob told Benar News.
Despite the reduction in violence, rebels mounted several deadly attacks in 2017, and locals said they still lived in fear of BRN.
The group is believed to have instigated much of the violence in 2017, including three separate roadside ambushes in April and June that each killed six soldiers.
This year’s violence also targeted civilians. On May 10, two car-bombs exploded outside the Big C, a department store in Pattani town, injuring at least 69 people. Although BRN hardly ever claims responsibility for attacks, a supporter of the group told BenarNews that the rebel group had carried out the twin bombings.
Among the civilians killed this year was a relative of “Dah,” a rubber farmer in Yala province.
The woman was shot and killed at home, Dah told BenarNews.
“I and my kin suspect that the BRN insurgents killed our relative. We don’t know if she did anything to them or not to invite death to herself. Our family is so scared,” Dah said.
Citing fears for her safety and reports that young BRN militants had infiltrated her village, she asked that BenarNews use only her nickname.
Dah expressed skepticism about the peace talks in 2017.
“The government said the peace talks made progress, but how? They cannot explain how and why people kept getting killed,” Dah said.
Elusive ‘safety zone’
In 2017, full delegations representing MARA Patani and the Thai government met twice in Kuala Lumpur – once in February and once in September. Their discussions hinged on implementing a “safety zone,” or limited ceasefire, in a yet-unnamed district in the Deep South.
Yet, nearly a year after the two sides agreed in February to a framework for such a truce, no such ceasefire has materialized.
According to a Thai security official, the ceasefire was delayed because MARA delegates demanded immunity from prosecution so they could venture into the Deep South to oversee the safety zone’s implementation, and this issue had not yet been resolved.
Heading into 2018, Thai negotiators will bring a comprehensive plan for a safety zone to the next meeting with MARA Patani, Maj. Gen. Sithi Trakulwong, the secretary for the Thai delegation, told BenarNews.
The plan includes a safe house, where officials from both sides will meet under secure conditions, he said.
“The Safe House is a coordination office where representatives from the dissidents, Thai officials and local civil society would work together to deal with local people to hear their views on what the safety zone should be like,” Sithi said.
After that, it could take another three months to implement the limited truce, he said.
Srisompob of Deep South Watch said he was optimistic about the peace process, noting that the meeting at the “safe house” was expected to take place next month.
“The peace talks will be more tangible, given that the safety zone is being arranged.”