Bangkok protests could delay talks on ending 10-year conflict in Thai south
Meeting between government and militants behind decade of conflict could be stalled
Stuttering peace talks to end Thailand's bloody southern rebellion are under threat from political turmoil in Bangkok, observers say, as the conflict enters its second decade.
More than 5,900 people have been killed in near daily shootings, bomb attacks and ambushes in the kingdom's Muslim-dominated deep south near the border with Malaysia. It is a complex, vicious and highly localised war whose victims have overwhelmingly been civilians, but it is largely ignored in the rest of Thailand and among the international community.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of a rebel raid on an army store in 2004 when hundreds of weapons were seized to fight the Thai state, which annexed the south a century ago. The incident is widely seen as marking the start of the current conflict.
The roots of the insurgency draw on long-standing anger at efforts to assimilate ethnic Malay Muslims and at a perceived lack of respect for local language, religion and customs.
Last year several rounds of tentative peace discussions raised cautious optimism for a political solution to the conflict. In an apparent breakthrough, the hitherto publicity-shy Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebel group made open demands.
But the talks stalled as the BRN waited for the government to respond to its five-point peace proposal.
Further discussions have now been postponed as the crisis-hit Thai government handles massive street protests in Bangkok aimed at toppling Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
National Security Council (NSC) chief Paradorn Pattanatabut said the southern peace talks could resume in January if "the protest situation gets better".
"I am worried [about the peace talks] but not too much," he said. "We will not quit the talks."
Another source close to discussions was less bullish, saying that the Bangkok political drama had caused uncertainty.
"There won't be any dialogue in January," the source said, requesting anonymity.
The delay has fanned fears of a loss of momentum in a complex and fragile process.
Who will be sitting at the table when - and if - they next meet is now also up for debate. A change of government could potentially see the Thai negotiating team shuffled.
"The talks are clinging on," said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of conflict monitor Deep South Watch at Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani.
"We have to wait for the old government or a new one to take them forward," he said, before sounding a note of optimism that the political will exists for dialogue to continue whoever is in charge.
For people living in the conflict zone, the uncertainty has doused hopes for peace any time soon.
There is little love lost for Thai authorities after decades of alleged human rights abuses, but many are also weary of war and condemn the Bangkok protesters for putting the peace dialogue on the back burner.
"We are sick of the anti-government protests," said Danyal Abdulloh, a peace activist in the south.
"This government talks about building peace," he said. "That's why I'm rooting for the ruling party."