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Bangkok looking to bring more rebel groups to table

Publication Date : 01-03-2013


Thailand's National Security Council chief Paradon Pattanathabutr took pains yesterday to play down the weight of the pact Bangkok had just signed to begin peace talks with a rebel group operating in the south.

"This is just a start," he told The Straits Times. Over the next few weeks, the Thai government would be looking to bring other Muslim rebel groups to the table.

It might take a while before the kingdom would be able to make headway in ending the separatist violence that has claimed more than 5,000 lives in its southernmost provinces since 2004.

Still, this is the first time that the Thai government has gone public about talking to the insurgents, who are fighting for greater autonomy or even secession from the Thai state.

Unlike the other parts of Thailand, the majority of people in southern Thailand, which consists of the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, as well as a part of Songkhla province, are Muslim and speak a Malay dialect. Until a century ago, this region was part of a Malay Muslim sultanate.

For years, the Thai establishment was wary of conferring legitimacy on the militants. Bangkok has held underground talks with the insurgents since 2005, but they have always floundered as the secrecy created uncertainty and cut the need for each party to be accountable, noted a report by the International Crisis Group.

Frequent changes of the central government from 2006 - when a coup unseated then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra - till 2011 reduced the incentive for militants to make compromises. The insurgency movement is also fractured and led by several groups, which provided an easy excuse for bureaucrats who were against negotiations from the start.

In the meantime, the region has become the most heavily militarised in Thailand, with 41,000 troops and police and more than 20,000 paramilitary forces, as well as 85,000 civilians in volunteer militias. It is difficult to recruit policemen to be stationed in the south. Teachers are also hard to hire because insurgents consider them symbols of cultural oppression by Thailand's Buddhist majority and gun them down.

In recent weeks, militants have stepped up bombings and arson attempts in response to a failed attack on a marine base on February 13, where 16 insurgents and no marines were killed.

The Thai government is increasingly coming around to the idea of a political solution, even though secession remains out of the question. Analysts said it roped in Malaysia to facilitate talks because many militant leaders are known to live in Malaysia's northern states, which border Thailand.

Matthew Wheeler, the Southeast Asia analyst for the International Crisis Group, said: "Political decentralisation offers some hope to resolving the conflict." The Thai government has offered no concrete proposal on this front even though it has said it is open to the idea in principle.

Dr Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch, a group monitoring the violence, warned that the talks may upset more radical wings of these groups. "We have to allow the leaders to talk to those working on the ground... It's going to take some time."

The success of the talks will also depend on how the rest of the nation responds.

"If the opposition party and the Thai media stir up strong nationalist sentiments, it's going to be tough for the government to have a peace dialogue with the insurgents," he said.


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