Thailand and separatist groups led by the Majlis Syura Patani (Mara Patani) are expected to discuss key issues leading to a joint statement to be signed at renewed peace talks at the end of next month, says Maj Gen Nakrob Bunbuathong, secretary to the Thai peace talks team.
His statement followed the first public meeting of major separatist representatives in Kuala Lumpur Thursday.
The Mara Patani is a new umbrella group of six insurgent movements, consisting of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), three factions of the Patani Liberation Organisation (Pulo), the Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Patani (GMIP) and the Barisan Islam Pembebasan Patani (BIPP). These groups were part of the previous talks, but as separate entities.
Awang Jabat, a BRN member, is Mara Patani's chairman.
The new umbrella group is spearheading efforts to re-start negotiations after the government said it wanted to hold talks with wider groups of separatists. The previous talks were dominated by the BRN.
Maj Gen Nakrob said he was instructed by the chief Thai negotiator, Gen Aksara Kerdpol, to lead the Thai side of the joint working group to coordinate with the Mara Patani and go over key issues together before furnishing a joint statement to be signed tentatively at the end of next month.
The key issues slated for discussion with the separatist groups are the establishment of a safety zone, joint social development of southern communities and help for security suspects to receive justice.
Maj Gen Nakrob said the Thai negotiating team is most hopeful the safety zone issue will materialise.
Among those present at Thursday's meeting were Awang Jabat, a member of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and chair of the Mara Patani; Sukree Haree, from the BRN and head of the Mara dialogue team; Ahmad Chuwo from the BRN; and Abu Hafez Al-Hakim, from the BIPP and the Mara secretariat.
Also there were Chegu Maekuteh from the GMIP; Kasturi Mahkota from the Pertubuhan Pembebasan Patani Persatu-MKP; and Abu Najhan from the Pertubuhan Pembebasan Patani Persatu-DSPP.
Originally, the Thai team hoped there would be one safety zone in each district across Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. But now Mara Patani prefers only one such zone at a location to be chosen by the group.
Maj Gen Nakrob said the Mara Patani must ensure it can control security in the chosen area while the Thai military will provide protection.
He said there will be more discussions between the two sides in the joint working group leading up to the joint statement.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister's Office Minister Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana said he believes the peace discussion by the joint working group has made significant progress.
The two sides are now at the stage of building mutual trust. They have tabled their demands and are heading for a point agreeable to everyone, which is the dialogue's goal, he said.
Speaking in Kuala Lumpur Thursday, Mr Awang stressed the umbrella group's main purpose was to "ensure the rights and interests of the people of Patani are heard, considered, discussed and fought for, consistently, systematically and concretely".
"It's about self-determination, not secession or separation," said Mr Awang.
The Marat Patani has issued three demands: acknowledge the talks as a national agenda item; ensure legal protection for its negotiators so they can travel to the deep South without being arrested or harassed; and Thailand must recognise Mara Patani as its counterpart in the talks, said Mr Sukree.
"These are the prerequisites before we can participate in the talks," Mr Abu Hafiz added.