Peace in South 'needs action, not gimmicks'
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Peace in South 'needs action, not gimmicks'

ANALYSIS: Prisoner release is welcome but is not a priority in peace process.

The early release of convicted Pulo terrorist Haji Sama-ae Thanam (aka Ismael Gaddafi, right) from prison is widely welcomed, amidst doubts that the men from the 1980s can influence peace moves. (Post Today photo)
The early release of convicted Pulo terrorist Haji Sama-ae Thanam (aka Ismael Gaddafi, right) from prison is widely welcomed, amidst doubts that the men from the 1980s can influence peace moves. (Post Today photo)

Peace activists have welcomed the release of a former senior Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) militant, but said direct action to improve justice and safety was more important for a sustainable peace process in the South.

Ismael Gaddafi, 63, also known as Sama-ae Thanam, was released last week at Eid al-Fitr, the end of the Muslim Ramadan fasting period, after serving 14 years of his 17-year, five month prison term.

He was imprisoned for separatist activities in connection with violence in the southern provinces.

Ismael said he would work with other militant groups to try and forge an understanding between separatists and officials, in a region where nearly 6,000 people have died since the insurgency began in 2004.

Rakchart Suwan, the Buddhist Network for Peace coordinator in Yala, said Buddhists in the far South welcomed any moves to reduce violence in the restive region, despite their lingering resentments that they still face discrimination.

"We don't have any problem with the release of [Ismael] as it happened discreetly within the legal framework. But we're looking forward to seeing direct steps to reduce attacks in the southernmost provinces," he said.

Civilians and officials from tambon Thanam in Pattani's Panare district, where Ismael lived, had sought his advice on peace even before he was moved from Songkla Central Prison to the closer Yala Central Prison two years ago.

However, Pulo's official website has not yet issued any welcome statement over Ismael's release, and government sources said neither Ismael's name nor that of any other individual had been mentioned during peace talks in Kuala Lumpur in April and June.

The government is talking to Majlis Syura Patani, known as Mara, an umbrella organisation of southern separatist and militant groups, including the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), launched to engage in peace talks with authorities.

"The release of security-related prisoners has been one of the demands from the insurgent movements since the previous talks two years ago, and remains intact. But it's not our priority in the current peace talks, which still need to reach a comfort level to further the agenda," said a senior civilian source involved in the dialogue.

Some are asking why Ismael was released and not other more key political prisoners, such as Muhammad Anwar bin Ismael Hajiteh, also known as Anwar.

Anwar was handed a 12-year sentence in May 2013 by the Supreme Court for supporting the BRN separatist movement.

"The BRN, not Pulo, is known for their active insurgency here," said a source from a civil society organisation in the deep South.

Government sources said the Yingluck administration had always responded quickly to the demands of BRN, which had never requested the release of individual fighters.

The previous government had also authorised the transfer of some 50 security-related southern insurgents imprisoned in Bangkok, Nakhon Si Thammarat, and Songkhla, to prisons nearer to their homes, the sources added.

The administration also released Haji Buedo Betong, former chairman of Pulo, in November 2013.

A Bangkok military source said efforts to "normalise ties with the former fighters" are continuing. The government has considered the overall picture "to address concerns of those from within, not just the exiled separatists.

"In the future they might release a symbolic prisoner representing a particular group [of insurgents] to boost the environment for peace talks, once they have served enough time to qualify for a pardon," the source said.

The authorities would also have to consider the sentiments of people in the deep South, the source said.

Mr Rakchat said both Buddhists and Muslims had suffered in the decade-long violence and agreed that peace talks were important. "If they think Mara is the right party, then engage with them more earnestly, so we can see some results,'' the Buddhist activist said.

A source in the Mara group shared similar sentiments, saying Pulo sympathisers "praised the release gesture, while the BRN considers it just another political gimmick".

"However, for Mara, we think it is a positive sign, though how much it will contribute to the peace process still remains to be seen," the source said.

Thammarat Alilateh, former prisoner and core leader of the Justice For Peace (JOP) campaign network, said he also welcomed the release of the former senior Pulo member but was still concerned about the lack of justice and safety for former prisoners. "We would like to see a clearer peace process. Without sincere and practical steps, distrust and mistrust remain," he said.

"For example, the Peaceful Ramadan project that the 4th Army commander pledged to ensure freer mobility of dissidents. In some cases searches and patrols against residents are still active."

Mr Thammarat also cited the case of former JOP chairman Muhammad Yaki Salae, who was arrested on April 24 and was released after a month-long detention in a military camp.

"Mayaki [Mr Muhammad's nickname] is facing a situation like mine. We are targets of harassment by the authorities even though many of us have been acquitted by the court.

"The justice we need is freedom from fear, which is still lacking."

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