Mixed signals at peace talks

Mixed signals at peace talks

The majority of the general public, including 67% of people in the three southernmost provinces and four districts of Songkhla, welcomed the Malaysia-brokered peace talks between the government and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) separatist group, according to a poll taken in March.

There is no question that talking peace is more sensible than trading bullets, and the government has made a bold move to formalise the process, something previous governments were reluctant to do.

But public confidence in the peace process appears to be waning as violence continues unabated in the far South.

Roadside bombings and shootings still take place almost on a daily basis more than six weeks after the signing of the peace talks deal on Feb 28.

The only difference is that it now appears the main targets of insurgent attacks are security personnel and local officials; civilians have mostly been spared.

The highest-ranking official to fall victim to insurgents in recent weeks is Yala deputy governor Issara Thongthawat, who was killed with his assistant, Chavalit Chairuek, in a roadside bomb attack in Bannang Sata district on April 5.

It appears insurgents have responded to the government's plea for them to not harm teachers, women and the elderly, who are deemed "soft" targets. Instead, they have shifted their focus to security forces and local officials.

Lt Gen Paradorn Pattanatabut, secretary-general of the National Security Council and head of the government's peace talks delegation, maintained the violence was not unexpected because there are some insurgent groups who still disagree with the peace process. It is wishful thinking to expect the violence to end overnight.

Yet questions have been raised about whether Lt Gen Paradorn's delegation has sent a misleading message to insurgents that it is fine for them to target security forces and government officials, so long as civilians are spared.

Apparently, the peace talks deal was signed in a rush without input from several major stakeholders _ namely the military.

Confused messages might have been given without proper consideration. More importantly, what is missing is a clear strategic plan for the aftermath of the signing of the peace talks deal.

Bomb attacks are considered the biggest threat against security forces and civilians because they are indiscriminate and there is no effective means to deal with the problem, Khunying Porntip Rojanasunan, director of Public Health Ministry's Forensic Science Institute, wrote in a recent magazine article.

She said most of the powergel explosives _ an emulsion-based explosive used in quarry blasting and tunnelling _ used by southern insurgents is smuggled in from Malaysia.

She suggested the issue should be raised with Kuala Lumpur to help solve the problem, and that Malaysia should also help keep track of Thais with dual Malaysian citizenship.

Despite the flaws and the relentless violence, the peace dialogue process must go on. But the BRN delegation must be told in no uncertain terms that if the process is to be saved, they need to do their part in earnest. That means convincing hardcore insurgent groups to scale down the violence and to join the peace process. Only then can a durable solution to the bloody conflict, which has claimed more than 5,600 lives in the past decade, be achieved.

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