Thailand is considering bringing more parties to the table for efforts to end a long-running insurgency in the Deep South, a senior official said Wednesday, acknowledging for the first time that it may not have been working with “the right dialogue partners” during two years of informal peace talks.
Deputy Defense Minister Udomdej Sitabutr made the comments two months after Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the most heavily armed of the rebel groups in the southern border region, criticized the current peace process in a YouTube video.
“We talked about whether or not we already have the right dialogue partners,” Udomdej told reporters in Bangkok, saying the “peace-talk process is still ongoing” and that Thailand may ask neighboring Malaysia for help in bringing all parties on board.
Kuala Lumpur has brokered the process, but both sides have not yet implemented a ceasefire in the far south, where attacks and bombings by suspected hardcore rebels have persisted.
According to Udomdej, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon recently told him and Aksara Kerdpol, the head of the Thai negotiating team, to explore whether MARA was an appropriate partner in the talks.
“The Thai prime minister advised General Aksara to look into that. Deputy Prime Minister General Prawit also advised him to discuss with the facilitator – Malaysia – to ask around in order to have all parties included,” Udomdej, who chairs a 13-member special government delegation to the Deep South, said without specifying when these conversations occurred.
In his comments, Udomdej was apparently alluding to a rare statement issued by BRN in April that voiced misgivings about the peace talks.
BRN, which occupies three seats at the MARA Patani table, suggested that the panel negotiating on behalf of rebel factions lacked a mandate to do so. BRN said the decades-old separatist conflict could only be resolved through dialogue. It demanded a direct role in fresh talks witnessed and mediated by “impartial” members of the international community.
“[I]nclusivity is very important for the peace process. All the parties and all the stakeholders should be involved in the process, and I don’t think there are any problems with MARA,” Kasturi Mahkota, the leader of the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), another rebel group represented on MARA Patani, told BenarNews.
MARA spokesman Abu Hafiz Al-Hakim could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
‘Incremental progress’ on safety zones
Meanwhile in the Deep South, the rector of Rakabhat Yala University suggested that MARA Patani was the wrong party representing the rebel side in talks.
Negotiations should be held in secret “because after every [round of] of talks, there comes more attacks, reflecting the wrong partner to talk with,” assistant Professor Sombat Yothathip said.
“There is someone opposing the attempts at talks,” Sombat told BenarNews “[T]he situation did not get better. I agree with the attempted talks but not with the method.”
More than 7,000 people have been killed since 2004 through violence associated with the conflict in the predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South.
And since MARA Patani and Thai negotiators agreed in late February to setting up a limited ceasefire in a district in the region, the Deep South has been riddled with attacks associated with the insurgency. At least 47 have been killed and 134 others injured since the last round of talks on Feb. 28.
Back then, according to MARA, the two sides set a three-month deadline for working together to identify a district where a ceasefire would be implemented. But, Udomdej revealed, both sides had not yet settled on this.
“As far as I know, the attempt to set up a safety zone has been going on. The next step is to specify a place to accommodate project coordination …,” he said.
“I cannot [go into the details] because the work has gradually progressed. It has made incremental progress,” Udomdej added.
Mariyam Ahmad in Pattani, Thailand and Hata Wahari in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.