Thai junta freezes talks with southern rebels: report

By Max Constant

BANGKOK (AA) – Thailand’s junta leader-cum-prime minister has effectively suspended peace talks with Muslim insurgents in the troubled south, in a move an expert said shows that the military “still cannot think outside of the box”.

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha described the last 12 years as “a sad and terrible waste of lives”, and criticized attempts since the 2014 coup to “renew peace talks with Malaysia-based separatists”, according to an editorial published Monday in the Bangkok Post.

“Dialogue appears interrupted for the time being,” it added.

Since 2004, the southern insurgency — rooted in a century-old ethno-cultural conflict between Malay Muslims and the central state — has killed more than 6,500 people, both Muslims and Buddhists, and left over 11,000 others injured.

During his regular televised address Friday, Chan-ocha blamed the previous government for wanting to hold peace talks and leaving problems for him to resolve.

He added that his government could not recognize Mara Patani, an umbrella organization representing several insurgent groups participating in the dialogue process, “as it has been involved in criminal activities”.

According to the Post, the outburst by Chan-ocha — whose government dismissed last month a key member of the military negotiating team who was reportedly considered too conciliatory with the rebel side — stemmed from a failed meeting last week in Kuala Lumpur.

Mara Patani also “once again refused to talk about specifics on the ground”, the editorial said.

Mara Patani leaders asked the military government, which seized power in a May 2014 coup, to recognize them officially — a step the junta has refused to take, partly because it does not want to boost the movement’s credibility.

An expert on the southern insurgency currently based at Australian National University, however, considers it too early to rush to conclude that the peace talks were suspended.

Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat told Anadolu Agency that Chan-ocha’s speech “only shows that the military still cannot think outside of the box”.

“The fact that a peace process is needed in the South is because those engaging in violent activities are not mere criminals,” she said by email. “A political solution is therefore needed and this can only be negotiated through a peace dialogue.”

Chalermsripinyorat waned that Chan-ocha’s comments would only raise doubts about his commitment to the dialogue process and undermine the government negotiators’ credibility.

Another long-time expert on the insurgency, Don Pathan, described recent developments in a blog post Wednesday, in which he said the junta “decided to resurrect that so-called peace process for fear of being perceived as anti-peace”.

“That decision helps explain their foot dragging now and their unwillingness to make concessions necessary to progress. An unwillingness which extends to refusing to call their dialogue partners by their name [Mara Patani],” said the former journalist and author.

The dismissal last month of a key government negotiator, General Nakrob Bunbuathong, had been a strong sign of the peace process hitting a bump, despite Chan-ocha’s insistence that “the peace talks will continue as planned”.

An unnamed source had told the Post that Bunbuathong was removed since he was considered to have compromised with Mara Patani in past rounds of dialogue.

“So we are currently facing a deadlock, which is perhaps common for any peace processes. More behind the scenes diplomatic works… will need to be done to break this deadlock,” Chalermsripinyorat said.

According to Pathan, the most active rebel group on the ground — the National Revolutionary Front, or Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) — has distrusted the junta’s willingness to work to resolve the region’s problems.

In his article before the Kuala Lumpur meeting, he wrote that the BRN was viewing Bangkok as “only interested in cutting the number of violent incidents for domestic consumption, not in addressing the root cause of the conflict… since that would mean having to make concessions”.

Armed groups in the south were formed in the 1960s after the then-military dictatorship tried to interfere in Islamic schools, but the insurgency faded in the 1990s.

It surged again in 2004 and rapidly escalated as the government of then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra severely repressed the rebels, leading to numerous human rights abuses.

After a marked decrease in violence in 2015, the number of incidents since the beginning of 2016 has increased, with several large-scale operations by suspected insurgents.