Talks tackle Thai conflict head on

By Andrew Buncombe in Pattani

Government to hold rare meeting with leaders of decades-old insurgency in bid to stop civilian slaughter.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Photo / Getty Images
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Photo / Getty Images

Nisea Nisani was curled on a plastic mat outside the hospital's intensive care unit in the southern Thai city of Pattani. His wife lay on a bed inside, battling for her life after a bomb blast. Nisani's wife and child, 9-year-old son Nisofin who did not survive, were struck by a bomb blast last week, the latest victims in a little-noticed, slow-simmering separatist insurgency that has transformed the region into a militarised zone.

While the casualty figures from most of the violent incidents are low, the number of victims since 2004, when the insurgency restarted, has now crept past 5000.

This week, in what observers hope will be a breakthrough, Thai authorities are to hold their first openly acknowledged talks with the most significant of a number of militant groups behind an insurgency dating back to the 1970s. Thai military officials will meet representatives of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) in Kuala Lumpur.

"It's a big step for the Thai Government," said a national security adviser to Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. "It's a huge political risk. But we want this sorted out."

The insurgency in Thailand's deep south is rooted in the fact that anywhere up to 90 per cent of the population of Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala and Songkhla are ethnic Malay Muslims, rather than Theravada Buddhists. Three of the provinces once formed the independent Sultanate of Pattani, annexed only in 1909.

The separatists say they are trying to protect customs, language and religious rights. Despite attempts by al Qaeda-affiliated groups to establish here, the conflict remains one driven by ethnic demands for greater autonomy rather than religious ideology. The insurgents have taken their battle to the state using targeted assassinations and bombing campaigns. With police and soldiers, many teachers and low-ranking officials have been killed.

The Thai authorities have held a series of under-the-radar meetings with several insurgent groups since 2005 in Malaysia, Bahrain and elsewhere. Even now, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, brother of the current Premier, holds unofficial meetings with representatives.

Yet the talks have made little progress. The Thai Government has often been distracted by domestic political turmoil, while doubting whether the figures they were meeting had any control over the fighters. The authorities appear to have been pushed again to the negotiating table by several factors, including a growing realisation that the BRN was the most significant of the groups.

Tony Davis, a Bangkok-based security analyst with IHS Jane's, said the insurgents had also stepped up their attacks. In February, at least 16 were killed when they launched an assault upon a well-defended Thai marine base. "In the last few years the situation has deteriorated on the ground, the insurgents attacking with increased capacity."

The Thai state has responded by amassing up to 70,000 police, soldiers and paramilitaries, filling the landscape with army bases and armed checkpoints. It's still unclear what the Government is willing to offer. During her election campaign in 2011, Yingluck said she would consider greater autonomy for the south. Yet the national security adviser said at this point "nothing is on the table". Again, it is unclear whether those representing the insurgents have it in their power to halt the killings.

- Independent

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