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Politics

'Safety zone' proposed for Thailand's troubled South

Thai military and Muslim militants mull initiative, locals sceptical

Scene of a motorcycle bomb attack in Thailand's southern province of Narathiwat.   © Reuters

PATTANI, Thailand -- After five years of intermittent and fruitless secret talks to end a Muslim insurgency in Thailand's southernmost provinces, the latest round in Kuala Lumpur in February has produced an agreement in principle between Thai military and Muslim militants to create a pilot "safety zone" to build mutual confidence. 

Gen. Aksara Kerdpol, the Thai military's point man at the talks with the insurgents, expects that the zone will take six months to create if it is approved in Bangkok. A host district has yet to be designated. 

Abu Hafez Al-Hakim, a spokesman for the militants' negotiators, described the proposal in a statement as "a confidence-building exercise." 

There is scepticism over the initiative among local Malay-Muslims, who are the largest minority in predominantly Buddhist Thailand. The regional unrest resumed in earnest in 2004, and has seen close to 7,000 people killed and more than 12,500 injured.

Residents of Pattani, one of Thailand's three Malay-Muslim provinces gripped by the conflict, have little faith in Malaysia's former spy chief, Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, who was handpicked by Najib Razak, Malaysia's prime minister, to broker peace in southern Thailand. His appointment followed a landmark agreement between the former Thai government and the militants signed on Feb. 28, 2013.

"He may be good at spying, but not at peacemaking," said one local civil society leader on condition of anonymity. The wariness of Zamzamin stems from his efforts to resolve the conflict without taking proper account of the discrimination and injustice that underpin it. Malay-Muslim resentment towards the Thai state has existed since the provinces, once part of a sultanate, were annexed in 1902 by Siam, as Thailand was formerly known.
 
The resentment towards Malaysia increased when Zamzamin pressured leaders of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the largest and best-armed militant force in the region, to participate in the talks. BRN leaders have been given sanctuary for years in Kelantan, Malaysia's rural northeastern state near the Thai border. The BRN has distanced itself from the MARA-Patani representatives at the peace talks, who belong to smaller militant groups.

According to Shintaro Hara, a Japanese Malay-language scholar and academic researcher in the troubled region, MARA-Patani lacks the backing of the shadowy BRN in the talks. "The legitimacy of MARA-Patani is constantly questioned by locals, and this raises questions about how sustainable this process is," Hara told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Similar divisions of opinion exist on the Thai side, according to a military source familiar with the talks. One view is that Aksara is negotiating with the wrong militants, and should be dealing with the BRN. It says that MARA-Patani does not control the BRN cells that mount strikes.

The limited achievement of the peace process will be small comfort to Najib, who is contesting a general election in the coming months. When he announced Malaysia's role in 2013, it was intended to win voters in Kelantan ahead of the general election in May that year. This will be harder to repeat in the 2018 election, according to Malay-Muslims in Thailand with relatives in Kelantan. Some seasoned political observers in Kuala Lumpur agree.

BRN leaders may instead be warming to Indonesia as an alternative mediator for future talks. "Indonesia is viewed as a more neutral party than Malaysia," said a BRN sympathizer on condition of anonymity.

For now, however, the proposed safety zone is one of the few things to emerge from the Malaysian-brokered talks in nearly five years. Conflict resolution experts have also flagged the political space that opened up since 2013 to allow Malay-Muslim civil society voices to even mention "merdeka" (independence in Malay). 

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