South peace suffers blow
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South peace suffers blow

On Friday night, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha unexpectedly brought up the situation in the South during his weekly address to the nation. He was terse and he was blunt. He called the 12-year war "a sad and terrible waste of lives", and in that one sentence criticised attempts over the past year and a half under his regime to renew peace talks with Malaysia-based separatists. Dialogue appears interrupted for the time being.

Gen Prayut's decision to pursue all options to end the conflict was something of a surprise. He had just recently declared impatience over the peace policies of the Thai negotiating team under Aksara Kerdphol. He dismissed the long-time security official Lt Gen Nakrob Bunbuathong over policy differences.

But last week's meeting in Kuala Lumpur with the self-styled representatives of the southern provinces went badly. The so-called Majlis Syura Patani, known as Mara Patani, once again refused to talk about specifics on the ground in the four southernmost provinces where the war has taken more than 6,500 lives -- Narathiwat, Yala, Pattani and parts of Songkhla.

The government and the Malaysia-based Mara Patani agree, more or less, on the stakes and why, for a second time, the talks have hit a bump in the road. As they did during the Yingluck administration, the group on the separatist side want official recognition. The government, for clear and well-established reasons, will not agree. Mara Patani has failed to show it actually represents any Thais of the southern region. Gen Aksara and his negotiators have asked Mara Patani to prove it has the influence it claims, by halting or slowing the constant violence.

One of the initial stipulations by Thailand has arguably worked against progress. That is that the Malaysian government plays no role in the talks themselves. As facilitator, Malaysia has agreed to host, finance and act as recording secretary at the Thai-separatist meetings. It is possible any attempt to restart the talks would benefit from Malaysia's experience in helping to negotiate between the government and rebel groups in the Philippines.

The talks always have been confidential, out of public view and without any report to the public by either side or by Malaysian hosts. This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, secret talks are supposed to encourage candid discussion. In theory, the government and pro-separatist sides can speak their minds and come to trust each other.

But secrecy can also work against the negotiators. The public has no way to discern truthful reports from propaganda. In secret discussions, there is a constant threat of one or both sides resorting to misinformation or even disinformation. Mara Patani has launched propaganda broadsides on the government in the past few days, which could injure the reputation of the military among people of the South.

Gen Prayut's brusque and surprising criticism of the Mara Patani contacts effectively delays the talks. It is understandable but debatable. The British ex-premier Winston Churchill put it succinctly and brilliantly when he said that, "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war". By putting the talks on hold, the government also has muffled a channel to the violence in the South.

That said, both recent governments have it right that the Malaysia-based groups never have shown they represent southern Thai people, including the insurgents. The core issue in the South is halting the violence. So, the government must keep open its lines to Mara Patani and all such groups.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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