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Effort to talk to separatists is worth trying

Discussions will need to be aimed at winning trust of younger rebels

After years of being dismissive of the idea of talking to the enemy, the government has finally admitted that it has been holding peace talks with several Muslim insurgent groups.

No particular separatist group was identified, but Deputy Prime Minister General Yuthasak Sasiprapha said the civilian-led Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre (SBPAC) will be the leading agency behind these informal talks, which could lead to formal negotiations.

But for the time being, "Don't call it negotiations ... there are talks to achieve peace, which is a crucial government policy," said Yuthasak, who is in charge of national security.

"The government has assigned the Southern Border Provinces Administration Centre responsibility for the talks, as they are well aware of whom to talk to," he said.

SBPAC chief Thawee Sodsong, appointed to the post about a year ago, kicked off the peace process shortly after he took office.

But the peace initiative wasn't really carried out under the SBPAC's work orders. Instead, it was Thawee, as the Pheu Thai Party's favourite bureaucrat.

Thawee brought in former Wadah faction guys, along with well-known figures from the restive region, to do the legwork. They were sent abroad to meet with exiled leaders of the longstanding Patani Malay separatist groups in the hope that they could be the bridge to the current crop of insurgents on the ground.

And as Thawee's peace initiative with the old guards unfolds, insurgents on the ground have decided to step up their attacks with bold and daring hits that have not only raised eyebrows, but also heightened the psychological impact.

For a while the government was treating these daring attacks - from massive car and roadside bombs to organised and coordinated attacks on military installations - as business as usual. But as the footage of the Ma-Yor attack made its way to traditional news outlets and social media networks, the government reacted in knee-jerk fashion.

Agencies were rearranged, supposedly to improve coordination among them, but no one who is watching the conflict closely is convinced that the new set-up will have any impact on the course of the violence.

The government has remained tight-lipped about Thawee's peace talks with the exiled leaders, which went nowhere over the past year. But this time around Yuthasak is saying there are ongoing talks with the militants on the ground, who he referred to as the RKK, or Runda Kumpulan Kecil, a component within the new generation of insurgents but not an organised front in itself.

Yuthasak's claim that a portion of the militants are looking for an exit may be a bit overblown given the fact that individual insurgents surrendering is nothing new. Apparently, they don't seem to be that enthusiastic about Yuthasak's idea of peace because many of them are still blowing things up.

Moreover, this past Thursday, a vehicle stolen from Bangkok was used as a car bomb attack on a government office in Pattani's Panare district. The gold-coloured Toyota Vigo used was not on a watchlist of the eight missing vehicles believed to have been stolen by the insurgents in recent months.

The same day also witnessed more than a dozen minor attacks on targets including petrol stations, convenience stores, surveillance cameras, mobile-phone signal posts and transformers.

Armed separatist groups have come and gone from generation to generation. But if these militants didn't have any resentment to feed on, then they would fizzle out.

Moreover, don't expect cash handouts and freebies in the form of government development projects to win hearts and minds or heal the wounds and bridge the trust gap.

Nevertheless, the idea of talking to the separatists should be welcomed and debated. But we should not forget that true and lasting peace in the deep South can be obtained only through establishing a comfort level between the Thai state and the Malays of Patani.


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