By Mariyam Ahmad and Matahari Ismail
Thailand announced Thursday that government negotiators and insurgent groups had finally chosen a district to launch a ceasefire in the Deep South, on a day when the latest bombing in the violence-wracked region injured 10 people including three schoolgirls.
Aksara Kerdpol, the army general who leads the Thai delegation in peace talks with the MARA Patani panel that represents separatist organizations, did not reveal the name of the district selected for the so-called safety zone – or limited ceasefire – but said it could take hold in another six months.
He said he had presented the plan to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha for his approval.
“In our most recent meetings in Malaysia, [we] agreed on naming a district for a pilot safety zone, which I have informed the prime minister about. The next step is to set up a safe house, a coordination center for all parties involved in brain-storming for safety measures, livelihood development and drugs elimination in the safety zone,” Aksara said in a statement.
“It will take six months for the safety zone to materialize, and to assess the success of such a peaceful approach as all parties wish,” he added. “There may be an expansion of the safety zone into other areas but it would depend on future talks.”
Late Thursday, BenarNews could not reach Aksara or his staff for clarification of the district and other details.
Meanwhile, in an article published Thursday on the website of Deep South Watch, a think-tank that promotes peace in Thailand’s southern border region and monitors efforts to settle the long-running insurgency, MARA Patani spokesman Abu Hafiz Al-Hakim hinted at recent progress in Malaysia-brokered talks that have gone on for three years.
“In an off-table encounter in January at Kuala Lumpur, both sides struck a deal, achieved a significant ‘breakthrough’ and agreed to resume the peace talk meetings. This was realized by [a] meeting on Feb. 7, 2018, whereby the teams wrapped up the remaining issues of the SZ (safety zone),” Abu Hafiz said. “It is just a matter of another two or three meetings ahead and both parties are ready to kick-start the SZ exercise in the agreed pilot district.”
When BenarNews contacted him on Thursday night (local time) for clarification on whether he was referring to a bilateral agreement on the choice of a district for the ceasefire, Abu Hafiz, who is based in Malaysia, decline to comment. At the time, the list included two districts in Yala province, two in Narathiwat province and one in Pattani province.
The agreement, as announced by the Thai government, came nearly a year after both sides said they had agreed to a framework for a safety zone, and that they would work together to pick one district out of a list of five districts for implementing the geographically limited ceasefire.
Should it take hold one day, the truce would mark a significant step in efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict in the predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South, where nearly 7,000 people have been killed since 2004.
Some observers, however, have expressed skepticism that Thailand’s military government is serious about striking a peace deal with the rebels, and have raised doubts over whether MARA Patani represents hardcore insurgents who have kept up attacks in the region, such as the one that took place Thursday in Yala.
Fourth attack on school this year
Officials in the Deep South said three school girls, three defense volunteers and four civilians were injured when a roadside bomb exploded in the morning near a small road leading to the Pracha-utit school in Muang district.
The attack by suspected insurgents was the fourth one targeting a school in the Deep South since the beginning of 2018.
“When defense volunteers rode a motorcycle to the site, the perpetrators triggered the improvised explosive device. Officials initially put the blame on insurgents,” said police Capt. Pongsak Nuan-iedrong, the deputy investigator at the police station in Muang.
The children who complained about dizziness after the blast and two defense volunteers who suffered shrapnel wounds were sent for treatment at Yala central hospital.
“There were two seriously injured volunteers: Muhammad Roni Lahama who is in an ICU and Wanchuruwan Jehmig who is receiving surgery,” Lt. Gen. Piyawat Makwanich, an army regional commander, told BenarNews.
Other recent attacks on local schools included a bombing that injured two children and two civilians on Feb. 6 in Yala, and another bomb that went off near a school in the province on Feb. 11.
A Deep South analyst said the school attacks seemed to be aimed at ruining the peace talks.
“The attacks are against the general principle of creation of safety zone. They seemed to be meant to destroy the atmosphere needed for creating peace, by selecting soft targets. The perpetrators do not respect peace and this may cause trouble in the future,” assistant professor Srisompob Jitpiromsri, the director of Deep South Watch, which is based at the Pattani campus of Prince of Songkla University, told BenarNews.
Boonsom Thongsriplai, the president of a teachers’ association in the Deep South, expressed grave concerns for schools and other public places.
“Certain special places like mosques, temples, schools and markets are to be specially treated as far as security goes,” he told BenarNews. “These places are ‘safety zones’ and while the government has conducted peace talks and the situation is better than in 2004, these safety zones must be 100 percent safe.”
At least 184 teachers were killed and at least 161 injured since 2004, Boonsom said. A spokesman for the military in the region said 951 children had either been killed or injured in the Deep South during the past 14 years.
Razlan Rashid in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.