Thailand to build bridges with Muslim insurgents

Thai soldiers operating a checkpoint in the troubled southern province of Yala where tensions are expected to ease. Picture: Reuters
Thai soldiers operating a checkpoint in the troubled southern province of Yala where tensions are expected to ease. Picture: Reuters
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Thailand’s government has signed a breakthrough deal with Muslim insurgents, agreeing to hold talks to ease nearly a decade of violence in the country’s southern provinces that has killed more than 5,000 people.

The agreement was announced yesterday in Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, between Thai authorities and the militant National Revolution Front, also known by its Malay-language initials, BRN.

“God-willing, we’ll do our best to solve the problem. We will tell our people to work together,” Hassan Taib, a Malaysian-based senior representative of the BRN, said after a brief signing ceremony with Lieutenant General Paradorn Pattanathabutr, secretary general of Thailand’s National Security Council.

Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak said Thai officials and the insurgent representatives would hold their first meeting in Malaysia within two weeks.

Mr Najib described the signing as “merely the starting point of a long process” because many issues have to be resolved, but added that it was “a solid demonstration of the common resolve to find and establish an enduring peace.”

Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra said talks would be conducted “within the framework of the constitution” of Thailand to address the root causes of the unrest.

“We are seeing a better direction in solving the problem, and I consider it a good start,” she said after meeting with Mr Najib. “We need to move forward as soon as possible.”

The first round of talks will focus on how both sides can co-operate, said Mohamed Thajudeen Abdul Wahab of Malaysia’s National Security Council.

Violence has occurred nearly every day in Thailand’s three southern provinces since the insurgency erupted in 2004. The militants have mainly targeted security forces and teachers, who are seen as representatives of the government of the Buddhist-dominated nation.

Muslims in the border region, which was an independent Islamic sultanate until it was annexed by Thailand in the early 20th century, have long complained of discrimination by the central government in Bangkok, and the insurgents are thought to be fighting for autonomy. But the insurgency remains murky, with militants making no public pronouncements on their goals.

Lt Gen Paradorn said Thai security forces would continue to patrol the region.

“It’s not unusual that there might be groups that disagree with the talks, so our military operations will continue. But the discussion will have to carry on at the same time,” he said.

The Thai government and military have struggled to identify legitimate participants for the peace process, as the militant leadership is not clear and no groups have stepped out to take responsibility for the daily attacks in recent years. The insurgency is believed to be highly decentralised, with local units having the freedom to choose targets and campaigns.

“This is a welcome development,” said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a political scientist at Prince of Songkla University in Thailand. “Not only that it is the first time the Thai government recognised the status of a separatist group, but also the process has included Malaysia as the facilitator of the talks, which will likely draw more participants in the peace process.”

However, experts have warned that bringing more insurgents to the negotiating table will not be easy.