Religious and academic leaders in Thailand's strife-torn Yala province have expressed optimism about the Malaysian government's role as a mediator between insurgent groups and the Thai authorities. If all sides in the conflict are brought into the negotiations process, they say, peace could finally be restored to the Deep South after close to a decade of near-daily terror attacks.
The talks proposal emerged Thursday (February 28th) during an annual bilateral meeting between Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Malaysian counterpart, Najib Razak.
During the visit, an accord on launching the peace process was signed by the head of Thailand's National Security Council, Lieutenant General Paradorn Pattanatabut, and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) representative Ustaz Hassan Taib.
The BRN is only one of several separatist organisations operating in the region, and some analysts were quick to stress that Ustaz has limited command over active insurgents in the Deep South and along the border with Malaysia.
Paradorn has acknowledged that the dialogue process is only a "starting point" for restoring peace in the south – an issue which both Thailand and Malaysia view as a top priority.
In Yala, religious and academic leaders expressed hope that the "Southern fire", as the conflict has been nicknamed, can be resolved at the negotiating table. They emphasised, however, that the insurgency has become a complex phenomenon.
Nimoo Makarja is a former chairman of the Yala Islamic Council and a close observer of the militant campaign, which has claimed over 5,500 lives – both Buddhist and Muslim – since early 2004. He has consulted with the Thai government on ways to find a solution.
In an interview with Khabar Southeast Asia, he said the BRN among several groups that have the capability to incite unrest in the region. All, he said, are highly factionalised and also compete with drug dealers, smugglers and corrupt politicians for influence in the region.
"Given the number of groups involved, we have to step back and ask ourselves whether a delegation of just three or four [BRN] representatives actually has the command power to order a lowering in the number of attacks or not," he added.
However, he said, the agreement was a step in the right direction. "Negotiating or signing an agreement with even just one of the two or three groups with influence on the ground still represents a change of approach," Nimoo said. "If they can then go on to negotiate and make agreements with the second and then third groups, they can claim success."
"We will have to wait and see just how much influence [the BRN signatory] has over his group, and how much capability that group actually has [on the ground]."
The monitoring effort should not be difficult, Nimoo said.
"We just need to review the number of incidents at regular intervals, say every three or six months. If we note a decrease in the number of incidents, we will know the situation is improving and that we are on the road back to peace and a normal way of life," he said.
Identifying the key players essential
Sombat Yothatip, an associate professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Yala Rajabhat University, agreed that negotiations with the BRN are only a first step.
"Today we have to accept that groups outside the BRN and Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) command structures are also active in carrying out attacks in the region," he told Khabar. "I do believe straightforward discussion is part of the correct vision, but this will take some time because there are so many groups involved."
Involving the Malaysian government might help Thailand determine exactly which [insurgent] players actually have the power to bring the violence to an end, he said.
According to Sombat, the underlying issues behind the insurgency must be addressed if the peace effort is to meet with success. "I would like the government to think systematically and come up with a comprehensive policy that addresses the root causes of all the violence, rather than focusing on individual negotiations with any particular group, such as the BRN or PULO," he told Khabar.
Yingluck administration is "reaching out"
The mayor of Yala Town, meanwhile, credits the administration with making a demonstrable effort to break the ongoing cycle of violence.
"I do believe this government is really reaching out," Pongsak Yingchoncharoern told Khabar. He added, however, that it is too early to predict the outcome, as successive administrations have changed their policies and tried different approaches over the years, with no let-up in the bloodshed.
He agreed that the roots of the violence must be understood in order to bring about success.
"One thing I would like my fellow brothers and sisters to consider why these Thais have come out to fight," he told Khabar. "No person would want to live in a state of constant duress, having to hide out in hilly, forested areas or even moving abroad, where they must be so uncomfortable. So they must hold real grievances to do such a thing. If we say we view this group of individuals as fellow Thais who share the same land, I think we have to be open-minded about it."
Mayor Pongsak cautioned against overly high expectations. "I think everyone is glad that we have a written agreement to hold talks," he told Khabar, "But talks are all they are; we can't even call them negotiations yet."
Nevertheless, the mayor welcomed this week's accord. "History has proved time and again that negotiation, not firepower, remains the only way to resolve armed struggle," Mayor Pongsak said.
"As for the insurgent groups, they need to make it completely clear that the attacks will stop while the talks are under way. They need to stop as a way of showing good faith with the local people. A temporary stop to the unrest will lift [people's] spirits. The government has to show good faith to the local people in many ways too, such as by easing security measures somewhat for their benefit," he said.
On Friday, one day after the accord was announced, suspected rebels detonated two bombs in a busy market area of Narathiwat, injuring six persons. The prime minister, noting that such attacks have been a regular occurrence in the Deep South, downplayed the significance of the incident.
"The signing yesterday does not mean that the violence will stop immediately," Yingluck told reporters.