BANGKOK: Stalled peace talks with separatist insurgents in southern Thailand got a little nudge on Monday. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, on an introductory visit to Malaysia, pledged with his counterpart Najib Razak to restart negotiations that had been suspended since late last year.
Almost immediately, both sides made statements that gave the public a reality check.
There must first be a period of no violence, Najib told the Malaysian media.
The two countries would work to include all relevant parties, he added. Lastly, all the groups would have to collate their demands and present a single list to the Thai authorities for consideration.
General Aksara Kerdpol, Thailand’s newly appointed chief negotiator who also met Najib, was cited by the Bangkok Post as saying: “I will do my best to negotiate, but please do not… expect anything at the moment.”
In other words, don’t hold your breath.
The separatist insurgency in Thailand’s Malay-Muslim-dominated southern border provinces has left more than 6,000 people dead over the past decade.
Hopes for some progress towards peace were raised when the government led by then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra publicly committed to Malaysia-facilitated peace talks in February last year.
Those hopes, say locals, have slowly ebbed, especially after the military overthrew the government on May 22 and continues to rule the country through martial law.
Critics pointed out that the demand for a ceasefire is already a non-starter because the cessation of violence is the result rather than the condition of negotiations.
It is also one-sided.
Prince of Songkla University lecturer Hara Shintaro says: “All parties should stop the violence, not only the non-state armed groups, but also state officers. In a conflict area, violence is committed by every side.”
Allegations of mistreatment and extra-judicial killings have long haunted the military and paramilitary forces in the region, and stoked resentment among locals.
Meanwhile, the military has quietly altered the negotiation lexicon, referring to what can roughly be translated as talks for “peace and happiness”, santisuk in the Thai language, instead of peace, santiphap.
The subtle change bears the overtones of its campaign nationwide to “bring back happiness” after decades of political conflict by – among other things – suppressing political activity, clamping down on dissent and rounding up anti-coup protesters for “attitude adjustment”.
Analysts fear it signals a more hardline approach in the southern border provinces, despite the military’s long-term goal of replacing troops with civilian defence volunteers and paramilitary forces, and winning hearts and minds in the region by doing more community work.
There remains strong suspicions about its intentions, most recently expressed in the dozens of banners questioning the sincerity of the post-coup government unfurled in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces on the day the two premiers met.
The more optimistic observers see the statements as a starting point. Mathus Anuvatudom, a lecturer at Bangkok’s King Pradjadhipok’s Institute, said: “I don’t see them as preconditions, but more like requests.”
Ultimately, in order to edge the process forward, Thai negotiators would have to exercise some flexibility.