Listen to KL in South talks

Listen to KL in South talks

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha will be out of the country for most of the next two weeks. He is scheduled to visit five countries on visits that include the mandatory "getting to know you" Asean tour, an Asean-Korea meeting, and economic talks in Japan. Arguably his most important trip will be next Monday, when he heads to Kuala Lumpur. He is scheduled to introduce his new chief negotiator to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

The Malaysia trip has been been preceded by nearly a month of reports and rumours over attempts to rekindle peace talks to solve the problems of the deep South. The official word is that Malaysia supports the talks. Mr Najib is supposedly eager to have his government's national security agency act as facilitator to engage the Thai government with some of the separatists who are well known in Malaysia. Behind the scenes however, rough patches are evident.

The newly assigned chief negotiator of the proposed talks is army Gen Aksara Kerdpol. He is army chief of staff, replacing the new commander Gen Udomdej Sitabutr in last month's annual shuffle. The muted word from Malaysia is that the facilitator is unhappy with this development. It is unknown why Gen Prayut ditched ex-National Security Council secretary-general Thawil Pliensri in favour of Gen Aksara. He was thought to be a shoo-in for the job.

Malaysia has supposedly pressed very hard to have a civilian as head of the peace talks delegation rather than a man in uniform. After the May 22 coup, Gen Aksara was originally placed in charge of the campaign to recover national forest land from encroachers and squatters. It was only in mid-October that the news came that Mr Thawil was out, the general was in. Gen Prayut delayed signing off on Gen Aksara's appointment, which was pushed hard by Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon. The appointment was made official only last week.

It is still unclear how important peace talks will be. That is because it is so uncertain how much influence the separatist side has. As of now, it seems that two groups from the 1970s have agreed to participate — the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) who were in last year's abortive talks spurred by then-premier Yingluck Shinawatra, and the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo).

A major question the BRN and Pulo should answer before they are allowed to sit at peace talks is whether they can enforce any agreement that might be reached. The immediate goal of the government, quite rightly, is to end the murderous violence in the deep South, particularly the terrorism. In the last two weeks, hand-lettered banners have been hung in the region threatening death to teachers and Buddhists.

Last week, 53-year-old teacher Isra Chaiyaritthicoke was shot dead by two gunmen. He was the 179th teacher killed by southern gangs in the nearly 11 years of renewed low-intensity insurgency. While there are many suggestions for steps to normalise the situation, any agreement without a cease-fire in the deep South is unacceptable. The separatists hold the military responsible for much of the violence, but the major threat to civilian lives comes from the separatist side.

Gen Prayut and Mr Najib must smooth over every problem before peace talks start. Only the government can decide on the details of who will represent Thailand. But the prime minister must listen carefully to every suggestion from the Malaysian leader, who will have valuable input about how talks should proceed.

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