Independence Still Primary Goal of Southern Thailand Rebels: Negotiator

By Rapee Mama and Hata Wahari
2015.08.27
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150827-MY-MARA-1000 MARA Patani Chairman Awang Jabat (fourth from left) and other representatives of Thai Deep South rebel groups brief reporters in Kuala Lumpur, Aug. 27, 2015.
BenarNews

Updated at 6:04 p.m. ET on 2015-08-27

Independence remains the overarching goal of southern insurgents negotiating with Thailand to restart Deep South peace talks, but they did not broach the topic during a closed-door meeting with Thai officials in Kuala Lumpur this week, the head of the rebel delegation said Thursday.

“This indeed is the demand that has been made for decades and it has never been dropped from the goals of the struggle,” Awang Jabat, chairman of MARA Patani, an umbrella group representing various Deep South rebel organizations and factions, told reporters.

He and other representatives of rebel groups were briefing the media in Kuala Lumpur about what had ensued at a Malaysia-brokered meeting on Tuesday with a Thai governmental delegation, led by Gen. Aksara Kerdpol.

At Tuesday’s meeting, according to rebel chief negotiator Sukree Haree, MARA Patani laid down three conditions for the resumption of peace talks: that Thailand place the Deep South peace process on its national agenda; recognize MARA Patani as a legitimate negotiating body; and guarantee immunity for its negotiators.

“With every new government, we needed to make a new start …,” Sukree told reporters, referring to the military junta that came to power in a May 2014 coup. Peace talks with the previous, civilian-led government stalled in December 2013.

“We want a clear answer from this government to ensure continuity,” Sukree said.

He also issued a warning.

“If either side is insincere, there shall be more violence. And if our three terms are not honored, there will be violence without any side claiming responsibility,” Sukree said.

Responding to MARA Patani claims that the government had yet to respond to its demands, Maj. Gen. Nakrob Boonbuathong, a member of the Thai delegation, told BenarNews that “the terms were received and will be considered along the process.”

Earlier, Nakrob had said that the Thai negotiating team had presented its own set of three proposals to MARA Patani in order to move ahead with formal peace talks: the creation of a “safety zone” in the Deep South, economic development driven by the local populace, and “justice for all.”

Main agenda

MARA Patani has not talked about independence in a series of meetings to date this year with Thai negotiators, Awang said.

“The demand was not expressed in peace talks at this time, but it is the main agenda of our group,” said Awang, who heads the military wing of the Barisan Nasional Revolusi (BRN) rebel group inside Thailand.

“Whether or not we put it on the table depends on negotiations going forward,” he added.

“MARA Patani stresses, whether the agenda of an independent state can be achieved, can only be decided by the Malay Muslims of Southern Thailand … only they can decide whether they want to be independent, an autonomous region or under the existing government,” he said.

MARA Patani was established in May as a united front through which rebel groups could negotiate with the government.

He said conditions were not right for the declaration of a ceasefire in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim southern border regions, where a decade of ongoing violence has claimed more than 6,000 lives.

“MARA Patani is aimed at a peaceful mean of fighting. As for the current fights with forces and arms, we will need to reach a stage where both sides can stop such violent means, it is up to how we can build mutual understanding and trust,” Awang said.

New direction

In a departure from past peace talks, MARA Patani would allow NGOs and other civil society groups to participate in efforts to end the conflict, he said.

However, while the umbrella group was formed to unify rebel groups in negotiations with the government, not everyone among the rebel ranks is backing this approach, Awang conceded.

“I believe there are some people who do not agree with the talks, but the talks will be going on,” he said.

The MARA Patani group that unveiled itself in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday consisted of seven men representing five southern Thai rebel groups and factions: BRN was represented alongside Gerakan Mujahideen Islami Patani (GMIP), Barisan Islam Pembebasan Patani (BIPP) and two factions of the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO).

A third PULO faction, PULO P4, had pulled out of the umbrella group after participating in MARA Patani’s earlier secret negotiations with Thai officials.

No more games: Thai officer

Meanwhile, a Thai military official stationed in the Deep South reacted cautiously to news about MARA Patani’s first public appearance.

“The public exposure of MARA Patani is a good thing but it must come out of inner sincerity, not just playing a cat-and-mouse game,” Col. Isra Chantaprayom of the 41st Paramilitary Task Force told BenarNews.

“MARA Patani leaders must let their Fatoni warriors know, and send the message out and gauge whether those on the ground agree or disagree on what MARA Patani is doing,” he added.

“The terms for MARA Patani shall be answered soon. People here have had enough.”

Nasueroh contributed to this report.

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