A SAFETY zone will be set up in the southernmost Narathiwat border province by the end of this month, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said yesterday, coinciding with a media report that Malaysian authorities were hunting for a Thai national from that province who reportedly tried to create an Islamic State cell in Thailand.
One of the four suspects sought by Malaysia – Awae Wae-Eya – is a Thai national living in Narathiwat.
“We have been monitoring the cells for the last few months. We are asking the public to share with us any information they have on the whereabouts of these four suspects. They should approach the police if they know anything,” Bukit Aman Special Branch Counter-Terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told The Straits Times.
Malaysian intelligence sources say they believe Awae is the group’s mastermind, based on interrogation of six men arrested recently, and that he is trying to establish an IS cell in southern Thailand.
Militants have orchestrated violence in the predominantly Muslim southern region since early 2004, claiming more than 7,000 lives since then.
Authorities in Bangkok have consistently maintained that the situation in the deep South was purely an internal affair of Thailand and no international terrorists were involved.
Prayut yesterday said that he expected the newly created safety zone to bring about “more trust among all parties”, following the ongoing peace process.
“If people, despite differences, are honest and do not create any incidents, then officers will not use force. Incidents of clashes and violence will consequently drop,” Prayut said at his weekly press briefing.
“But I don’t know if any group outside the dialogue would create any scene [in the area]. We won’t be able to control that much,” he added. “So what’s important is that we need cooperation from all sides, especially in the designated areas.”
Thailand’s negotiating team, led by Aksara Kerdphol, has been pursuing dialogue with MARA Patani, an umbrella organisation of six insurgent groups in Thailand’s three southernmost border provinces.
Thailand has said the safety zone will be set up by this month, beginning with Joh I Rong district in Narathiwat, one of the violence hotspots.
MARA Patani began talks with the Thai government three years ago but the dialogue has progressed at a snail’s pace, as the umbrella organisation does not have control over combatants on the ground.
An observer described Thailand’s engagement with MARA Patani as “just buying time” until the leadership of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the one group that controls virtually all the militants, decides to join the peace process.
Malaysia, as a facilitator of the peace talks, tried to make a deal with BRN leaders that their militants would not sabotage the safety-zone initiative, according to a source close to the peace process.
There was a rift within agencies as the 4th Army Region Commander Lt-General Piyawat Nakwanich initiated 14 safe zones, which was rejected by MARA Patani last month.
Piyawat has claimed success with his “Bring People Home” project, which aims to facilitate the return of former militants to normal lives as well as those fleeing overseas, but MARA Patani has refused to recognise it.