Thai authorities are to hold a preliminary round of peace talks on Tuesday with a newly-formed alliance of southern insurgent groups.
Setting up safety zones in the far South will be among priority items for discussion during the talks to be held in Kuala Lumpur, Gen Aksara Kerdpol, head of the Thai negotiation team said Monday.
Gen Aksara, who flies to Kuala Lumpur Tuesday, said the Thai negotiators will meet representatives of an insurgency group alliance, called the Majlis Syura Patani, or Mara Patani. The talks will be brokered by Malaysian host, Ahmad Zamzamin bin Hashim, former director of Malaysia's national intelligence agency.
Mara Patani is a coalition of six separatist groups allegedly involved in insurgent activities in the deep South of Thailand.
They include the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Patani (GMIP), the Barisan Islam Pembebasan Patani (BIPP), and three Patani Liberation Organisation (Pulo) factions. These groups were part of the talks before, but as separate entities.
"Their formation of this group is an attempt by them to shed themselves of their violent image and move towards peace as they realise the sincerity of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha," said Gen Aksara.
Gen Aksara Kerdpol said the talks will try to determine which areas in the South should be declared safe zones, adding police and military officers would help ensure this happens.
The move is intended to ensure certain zones will be violence-free and that no special security laws would be necessary in these areas, he said.
Gen Aksara said insurgent group proposals on judicial matters, such as parole for insurgent suspects, will also be discussed. Any issues agreed upon in the talks could start taking shape in September.
According to Gen Aksara, the new insurgent alliance is in the process of choosing a leader and other key posts.
It remains unclear whether the group will be led by Awae Yabah since Hassan Toib, who formerly led previous talks, had stepped down, he said.
He said he was told by the Malaysian host that the new Mara Patani group intends to hold a press conference attended by Malaysian and Thai media on Thursday.
"They may want the publicity to garner more support to exert more influence in talks with the government," Gen Aksara said.
Some critics have warned the Mara Patani should not claim they represent the people of the South or the BRN itself.
"It's quite clear the BRN could not get the key concessions from its five demands made in previous talks so they want to keep the dialogue going with the Thai state," said a BRN sympathiser.
"These peace talks with the government are just a means of communication between some exiled groups and Bangkok and not the real separatist movement which directly controls the violence in the region," he said.
Rakchart Suwan, of the Thai Buddhists Network, said neither ordinary Muslims or Buddhists are being informed or consulted on how peaces talks are proceeding.
"The first rounds of talks during the Yingluck administration did not see meaningful engagement with civil society, only some comments by senior officials.
With the military government, we initially thought we would hear or learn something more, but we haven't," Mr Rakchart said.
Waeromlee Waebula, from the Kampung Taqwa Network, echoed this view but demanded a greater say for southern residents.
"It's always the elite doing the talking with no grassroots involvement," said the activist.
"If the authorities reach out to communities and those working on the ground, allowing them a voice, the peace process could be driven by the stakeholders," said Mr Waeromlee.