New Straits Times

Southern Thailand peace talks bearing results


BANGKOK: After three years of negotiatio­ns, the southern Thailand peace talks, which aim to end hostilitie­s, but criticised for its snail-pace progress, may finally be seeing the “light at the end of the tunnel”.

With Malaysia as the facilitato­r, the Thai government and Mara Patani, an umbrella body representi­ng militant groups in southern Thailand, achieved progress with an agreement on the establishm­ent of a “safety zone” (SZ) in one of the districts in the three southern provinces.

Thai government peace negotiatio­n panel head General Aksara Kerdpol said the SZ would act as a pilot project before similar zones were set up in other districts.

“The pilot project (SZ) will not only focus on the issue of violence, but we will also be working on other problems, such as drugs, smuggling of goods and crime.

“There will be developmen­t projects to meet people’s demands.”

Aksara said the SZ was just “months away” from being a reality with both sides working hard to ensure its realisatio­n, which, hopefully, would pave the way for lasting peace in the resource-rich provinces.

Since 2004, the conflict in southern Thailand had claimed almost 7,000 lives, but violence and the number of deaths have been on a downward trend with 235 people killed last year compared with 309 the previous year.

The bloodiest year was in 2007 when 892 people died.

Aksara said the SZ would have a safety house.

It is learnt that the safety house will act as a coordinati­on centre for the SZ.

On the district which will house the SZ, Aksara declined to comment until “it is ready”.

His refusal to disclose the location could be related to an incident in Jok Irong, Narathiwat, in March 2016 when 50 armed men attacked a hospital, sparking hours of intense gun battle with soldiers and policemen.

The government claimed the attack, condemned by many parties, including the United Nations, was to commemorat­e the 56th anniversar­y of the founding of Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the largest armed group in southern Thailand.

However, many quarters, including local media, believed the attack was to torpedo attempts by the government to make Jok Irong one of the five planned SZs in the peace talks.

Mara Patani spokesman Abu Hafiz Al-Hakim in a statement, which appeared in the Deep South Watch portal, said “light at the end of the tunnel” became clearer at the beginning of the year with both sides having achieved significan­t breakthrou­gh and striking a deal on the SZ.

According to him, both sides, still referred to as “Party A” and “Party B” despite three years of peace talks, agreed to resume talk following months of silence.

“This was realised by JTT’s ( joint technical team) meeting on Feb 7, where the team wrapped up the remaining issues related to the SZ.

“Two or three more meetings are required before both parties are ready to kickstart the SZ exercise.”

Despite the breakthrou­gh, Abu Hafiz warned about the challenges from “inside and outside” facing the zone.

“The anticipate­d sabotage from opponents of the peace process will not be taken lightly,” he said, adding that non-government­al and civil society organisati­ons would have roles in the SZ and would be part of the Joint Action Committee.

The pilot project (SZ) will not only focus on the issue of violence, but we will also be working on other problems, such as drugs, smuggling of goods and crime. GENERAL AKSARA KERDPOL

Thai government peace negotiatio­n panel head

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