Thailand’s national security chief said on Tuesday that talks between rebel leaders and his government aimed at ending a bloody insurgency in the south had not broken down, despite the rejection of rebel demands for self-government.
Violence has persisted in the three Muslim-dominated provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, part of a Malay Muslim sultanate until they were annexed by Buddhist Thailand in 1909.
“We did not fail. We listened to them but did not strike any deals,” said Paradorn Pattanathabutr, secretary-general of the Thai National Security Council, referring to the talks in Malaysia on Monday.
Thailand agreed in February to hold formal peace talks with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), one of the oldest insurgent groups operating in the area.
The BRN posted its demands on YouTube on Sunday, listing “running our own government in the fairest way” as one of its objectives for the region.
“Their initial demands were high and could mean self-determination, autonomy, power-sharing or decentralisation. But further along the line the BRN could be willing to adapt their terms,” said Srisomphob Kitphiromsri, a political scientist with Deep South Watch, a think-tank that tracks the violence.
Thai officials have always rejected any notion of independence or regional autonomy.
The talks in Kuala Lumpur, which lasted more than 10 hours, were brokered by the Malaysian government. The rebels wanted Malaysia to be a mediator, but Thailand rejected that.
Resistance to Buddhist rule has simmered in the south for decades and resurfaced violently in January 2004, since when drive-by shootings and bombings have become almost daily events and more than 5,300 people have been killed.
The peace talks have done nothing to quell the violence: the number of fatalities in March was the highest since the violence flared up again, Deep South Watch says.
Thai security forces say the BRN is the main insurgent organisation behind the attacks but some analysts say the BRN has little control over the fighters on the ground and are therefore pessimistic about the talks.
“The BRN are the most influential group, but the government should open the door to other, smaller groups. The talks should be inclusive,” said Srisompob at Deep South Watch.
The two sides have agreed to meet again on June 13.