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Thailand Looks to Restart Southern Peace Talks, Despite Little Progress

  • Ron Corben

FILE - A soldier stands guard on the Thai side of the river as people prepare to cross into Malaysia in Sungai Kolok in southern Narathiwat province, March 8, 2013.

FILE - A soldier stands guard on the Thai side of the river as people prepare to cross into Malaysia in Sungai Kolok in southern Narathiwat province, March 8, 2013.

Thai authorities say they are prepared to resume talks with Muslim insurgent groups. The negotiations, which are expected to take place in Malaysia next month, have so far shown few signs of progress. Nonetheless, analysts say the prospect of a new round of talks marks a new stage in the insurgency.

This week, Thailand’s National Security Council called for a fresh round of talks to follow up on negotiations that started in February aimed at laying the groundwork for dialogue.

The talks are aimed at resolving an almost decade-long insurgency in Thailand’s Muslim-majority southern provinces close to the border with Malaysia. The conflict has killed more than 5,500 people and wounded scores of others.

Sunai Pasuk, an analyst with the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said that even as peace talks have gone on, the violence has continued.

"It's going back to the point that daily violence is going on regardless… [There are] daily attacks, and after insurgent attacks the government will carry out a raid on an insurgent stronghold, and that will afterward lead to retaliation by the insurgents. So it becomes a 'ping pong' of violence, a very deadly ping pong game," explained Pasuk.

The idea for the talks grew out of contacts between former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Malaysian leader Najib Razak last year. Thaksin is the older brother of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and remains an influential figure in the current government, despite living in exile to avoid corruption charges.

International Crisis Group (ICG) analyst Matthew Wheeler claims that while some observers have doubts regarding the dialogue process, it represents a new phase in a conflict he terms the "most effective insurgency in Thai history."

“Things have clearly changed and the obvious factor is the talks. There's a lot of skepticism about the talks and some of it is justified. Some of it is misguided - some of the criticism is political in nature based on the fact that Thaksin was instrumental in getting cooperation from [Malaysian] Prime Minister Najib in getting the process started. Thai officials are determined to keep the process alive,” said Wheeler.

The near daily attacks in Thailand’s south rarely garner international headlines. On Tuesday, three senior members of a Thai police ordnance team were killed when a hidden bomb detonated while they were examining another explosive device.

ICG analysts say there was a monthly average of 24 roadside attacks in the first half of 2013. Wheeler says the insurgency has changed tactics since the government launched the dialogue this year.

"There's a shift to military targets -- and especially staging ambushes on patrols using IEDS to target vehicles and then follow up with small arms fire. This could be an effort on their part to enhance their legitimacy now that they're at the table and there's more international scrutiny," said Wheeler.

BRN, the group representing the insurgent factions, has demanded the withdrawal of troops, the release of insurgent prisoners, and the participation of outside groups in the peace process, including the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The OIC has criticized Thai authorities for making slow progress in resolving the conflict.

Panitan Wattanaygorn, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University and formerly a spokesman for the previous government, feels the talks are more about "buying time" than setting out concrete proposals, such as greater regional autonomy.

"It’s time to talk about real proposals of the new governance in the South. There are several proposals already on how to decentralize the power from the center. And there is no real winning strategy on the ground for the military. The military really need to look deep into their strategy and come up with a much better one," said Wattanaygorn.

Analysts say "a special administrative arrangement" may be the best opportunity to bring about a resolution, but the Thai military remains fearful over any loss of sovereignty.