Efforts to restart peace talks in Thailand’s Deep South ground to a halt when the Thai government this week declined to endorse ground rules for formal negotiations, the rebel side said Thursday.
Negotiators for the two sides had “mutually agreed” to terms of reference (TOR) in earlier meetings, and expected the full delegations to endorse them at talks in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, sources among the rebels told BenarNews. But the meeting lasted only an hour and 15 minutes, according to the insurgents.
“[T]he Thai side was not ready to endorse the TOR,” said Abu Hafez Al-Hakim, a spokesman for MARA Patani, a panel representing southern rebel groups and factions in negotiations with Thailand’s junta.
“We are however unsure if party A wants to review the TOR, draft a new one or suspend the process altogether,” he said, referring to the Thai delegation. “We were informed that the Thai Prime Minister has not yet approved it.”
The setback to the Malaysia-brokered peace efforts occurred a week after Lt. Gen. Nakrob Boonbuathong, Thailand’s top negotiator with southern rebels since 2013, told BenarNews that he had been removed from that duty.
In comments to reporters the next day, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha called the change of personnel a “normal reshuffle.”
Thai delegation members and military officials in Bangkok could not be reached for comment about the talks on Wednesday or Thursday.
Ahmad Zamzamin, the Malaysian facilitator of talks aimed at re-opening formal peace negotiations for the first time since December 2013, declined requests for comment.
‘A set of rules’
The contents of the TOR have not been revealed to the public, and a statement released by MARA Patani on Thursday did not make clear what the Thai side had objected to in the terms.
A MARA Patani steering committee had approved the terms earlier in April, and a technical team from the Thai side, led by Nakrob, had agreed to them as well after multiple meetings since last year, Abu Hafez said.
“The TOR is like a set of rules and regulations without which a match could not be played,” Abu Hafez said.
“Whatever reasons they have (for not endorsing the TOR), we will give them ample time to reconsider and reverse that decision,” he added.
The MARA spokesman also alluded to Nakrob’s absence at Wednesday’s short meeting.
“He was the ‘engine’ of the Thai team who is knowledgeable and well-versed of the peace process,” Abu Hafez said.
“Prior to his removal, he was optimistic that the Party A would endorse the TOR. His absence was felt and has considerably affected the process.”
‘Not a good sign’
In Thailand, some analysts and NGO leaders reacted with consternation to news of the setback to the peace talks.
“This is certainly not a good sign for the peace dialogue,” Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, an expert on the Deep South, told BenarNews.
Rungrawee said that Prime Minister Prayuth should publicly explain why Thailand did not back the terms, which government representatives had been hammering out with the rebel side for months.
“At the moment, the prospect for the government to proceed with the dialogue is apparently grim,” Rungrawee said, calling the process “vital to the search for a long-term solution to the protracted southern conflict.”
In Yala province, Rukchart Suwan, president of the Buddhist Network for Peace, said he was not surprised that Prayuth had not endorsed the reference terms. He urged negotiators to communicate with the public about the way forward.
“Is a new TOR needed? How long will this take to be done? These [questions] are hanging in the minds of the people, and they have an uncomfortable feeling toward the way the government has worked,” Rukchart said.
Rebel ranks split
Thursday was the 12th anniversary of the Krue Se mosque incident. On April 28, 2004, armed separatists launched attacks across the Deep South that culminated in a military raid on a 400-year-old mosque that killed 32 suspected rebels holed up inside.
More than 6,000 people have died since then in violence associated with the separatist insurgency in Thailand's predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South region. Since early February alone, at least 35 people have been killed in shootings and bombings carried out by suspected insurgents.
On Thursday, a Thai paramilitary was killed and five others were injured in a bomb attack in Yala – one of the provinces in the Deep South – as they were helping to build houses for poor people, police said.
Commenting on the latest twist in the peace process, Malaysian analyst Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani told BenarNews that talks could not take place amid such violence.
In his view, rebels who oppose the peace process spearheaded by MARA Patani were behind the recent surge in regional violence. A sticking point in the peace process has been demands by hardcore rebels for total independence from Thailand, he noted.
“The failure of agreeing to the TOR also comes from the disagreement among the rebel groups themselves. Although MARA Patani has been formed, there are rebel groups who, at the moment, feel left out in the peace talks,” said Azizuddin, a political science and international relations expert at Universiti Utara Malaysia.
Hata Wahari in Kuala Lumpur, Nasueroh in Pattani, Thailand, and Nani Yusof in Washington contributed to this report.